The third-seeded Capitals and sixth-seeded Rangers will meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third-straight season and fourth time in the past five years. Here’s what to watch for during the series, which opens Thursday at Verizon Center.
The Pressure Is on …
The Caps as a whole: One of the more prevalent knocks against the Capitals this season was that they feasted on the dregs of the Eastern Conference. While Washington won 15 of 18 against the Southeast Division, it finished 7-12-1 against the other seven Eastern playoff participants, with only three wins in regulation. They will certainly have to shake that stigma. Past playoff letdowns also loom. The Caps are in the postseason for the sixth-straight season, but they have yet to advance past the conference semifinals.
The Rangers’ Rick Nash: New York acquired Nash from the Blue Jackets last summer to give them another threat on offense. He led the Rangers with 21 goals, but he has never felt the pressure that he is about to experience. Expectations in New York are exponentially higher than those in Columbus. Without former Rangers whipping boy Marian Gaborik to place the blame on if things go wrong, Nash, who has never won a playoff game in nine previous seasons, will receive plenty of criticism if New York falters.
Martin Erat, Capitals winger: General manager George McPhee acquired the veteran winger with 46 games of postseason experience from Nashville at the trade deadline to bolster a roster that he felt could compete without significant changes. Erat will not only be tasked with providing secondary scoring, but he must play tough vs. the physical Rangers.
Derick Brassard, Rangers center: In 13 games since arriving from Columbus, Brassard has 11 points and has provided a scoring punch at both even strength and on the power play. Scoring depth is integral to postseason success, and the 25-year-old has enough skill to make a difference behind New York’s primary offensive threats.
Special teams always plays a large role in playoff series, but it could prove decisive in this series. Washington’s league-best 26.8 percent power play was the NHL’s highest in more than 20 years. New York allowed only 3.08 power play opportunities per game, well below the league average of 3.32, and earned an NHL-low 9.2 penalty minutes per game. The Rangers are physical, but disciplined, so the Capitals must take advantage of their power play opportunities when they present themselves.