This Hockey Is a Whole New Game

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir previews the playoff battles ahead for the Capitals, starting with the New York Rangers. Video by Comcast SportsNet
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The intensity rises. The pace is faster. The hits are harder.

Playoff hockey was something unfamiliar to the majority of the Washington Capitals a year ago, and by the time the youthful lineup adjusted, the Philadelphia Flyers were leading the first-round series, 3-1.

"We didn't quite know what to expect," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Last year, 90 percent of our players had no idea what playoff hockey was about. It was like shock value. This year, we know how ramped up it is. It's a lot higher than we thought."

As heartbreaking as that seven-game, first-round exit was for the organization and its fans, it was a necessary step in the Capitals' evolution, a painful lesson Boudreau hopes has prepared Alex Ovechkin and his teammates for the exponentially higher expectations they'll face when the postseason begins tonight against the New York Rangers.

During practice yesterday, Boudreau's voice conveyed a sense of urgency. The players' eyes were focused. Drills were executed with passion, and more important, precision. Last season, the Capitals hoped to advance. This season, they expect to, a sentiment underscored by the team's businesslike approach to their final tuneup.

"This is it," Ovechkin said. "You give everything you have on the ice. It doesn't matter [if it's] first period, first shift, second shift. You just give everything."

But effort alone won't be enough against Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. These four keys to the series figure to be equally as important:

-- Making Lundqvist's job difficult. The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist won a career-high 38 games to go along with a .916 save percentage and 2.43 goals against average. He excels under pressure, but even elite goaltenders struggle when they don't get a clear view of the shooter. Therefore, it's absolutely critical that the Capitals create traffic in front -- something that's been easier said than done this season.

"You look at our last 10 games, even though it was against inferior opponents, we've scored some goals because we've done that," Boudreau said.

Lundqvist was 1-1-1 against the Capitals during the regular season, yielding 11 goals on 93 shots (88.2 save percentage).

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