While an endless number of factors could help to swing the balance in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Capitals and New York Rangers, here are five of the top story lines to watch over the course of this first-round matchup:
It was a season of transition for Washington’s captain, who switched to right wing back in January at Coach Adam Oates’s request. He recorded just two goals in his first 10 games but after gaining confidence in his new position, Ovechkin returned to being the unpredictable and nearly unstoppable offensive force that he was in the early stages of his career. With 23 goals and 13 assists in the final 23 games, he propelled himself into consideration for the Hart Trophy and captured the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer (32). Can he continue this impressive run in the postseason when going up against the defensively dedicated Rangers? Can he finally lead the Capitals on a lengthy postseason run?
The opposing coaching philosophies of Oates and Tortorella
Oates’s success in his first season as an NHL bench boss has come from his ability to build a trusting and respectful relationship with each player on the Capitals roster. No matter the outcome he’s never yelled, because he doesn’t believe it’s a good motivation tool, and maintains a positive outlook. Meanwhile, Rangers Coach John Tortorella is well known for his fiery personality and willingness to chastise players. It will be interesting to see which coach can extract the best performances from their team in the grueling test that is a Stanley Cup playoff series.
Holtby vs. Lundqvist, Round 2
In the seven-game 2012 Eastern Conference semifinal, Braden Holtby finished with a .929 save percentage and 1.90 GAA against the Rangers, allowing just 15 goals on 211 shots, while Henrik Lundqvist boasted slightly better numbers with a .927 save percentage and 1.66 GAA, giving up 13 goals on 179 shots. They’re equally capable at making stunning, game-changing stops and should either netminder get on a roll it could swing the balance in the series. While he’s no longer a playoff rookie, Holtby is quick to dismiss any notion that he will approach this series differently. “You just have to perform, you have to believe that we’re the better team and you go from there,” he said. “You throw experience out the window and you just play.”
Maintain power-play prowess
Washington owned the most potent power play in the regular season with a 26.8 percent success rate, but the Rangers were the least penalized team, with an average of 9.2 minutes in the box per game. That discrepancy will make every Capitals power play that much more critical in the postseason, where penalties are called with far less frequency. The Capitals went 1-for-10 on the power play in three games against New York this year but in order for the man advantage to be a true asset, it will need to produce more frequently than that in this series.
Rangers’ defensive depth
New York will likely start the series without Marc Staal, who still has blurred vision in his right eye after being struck by a puck in March. His absence will put significant pressure on the top defensive pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who both average more than 24 minutes of ice time per game and will likely match up against Washington’s first line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. The Capitals have thrived off a strong forecheck and cycle this season and if they can wear on that pairing – or take advantage of the other combinations of Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman or John Moore and Steve Eminger – they’ll help their long-term cause.