Washington Capitals (0-0) at New York Rangers (0-0), 7:30 p.m. (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) – In what has become a near annual occurrence, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals will begin another playoff series when the clubs meet Thursday at Madison Square Garden for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
This marks the fourth time in the past five seasons that these clubs are getting together in the playoffs and it’s the fifth postseason encounter between the Blueshirts and Capitals since 2009.
New York won the two previous encounters in 2012 and ’13, taking both series in seven games. The only time the clubs haven’t faced each other since 2011 was last spring when Washington failed to qualify for the playoffs.
All told, the Caps and Rangers have met eight times in the postseason and each club has taken four series.
New York, the Presidents’ Trophy champions, enters this best-of-seven set after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games during the opening round. The Rangers hope to have similar success against the Capitals, another rival from the Metropolitan Division, who ousted the New York Islanders in seven games to reach the second round.
“It was a hard series against a great team,” Washington captain Alex Ovechkin of the series against the Islanders. “And right now we have another great opponent who won the Presidents’ Trophy and plays great hockey. We’re looking forward to the challenge and it’s a great time of year.”
Although it was over relatively quickly, New York’s series against Pittsburgh wasn’t easy. Each meeting of the conference quarterfinal was decided by only one goal and all four of the Rangers’ victories came by a 2-1 score. New York also needed overtime to take both Game 4 and 5.
The Rangers are known more for their stingy defense than for lighting up the scoreboard, so they were extremely comfortable playing in a series like the one against Pittsburgh. New York had the best defensive numbers in the opening round of the playoffs, leading the NHL with only 1.60 goals allowed per game.
Star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist anchored the defense with a 1.53 goals against average and .939 save percentage in the opening round. Over 97 career postseason outings, the steady Swede owns a .923 save percentage and 2.21 GAA.
Ryan McDonagh is the workhorse on the New York blue line, logging 25 minutes, 45 seconds per game in Round 1. He also led the club’s defensemen with four points on a goal and three assists. Dan Girardi added three assists, while Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle posted two helpers apiece.
Both Boyle and Yandle were acquired by New York since last season’s playoff run — the former as a free agent last summer and Yandle via an in-season trade with Arizona — to help bolster the struggling power play but it hasn’t really helped.
The Rangers made it to the Cup Finals in 2014 despite scoring on only 12.6 percent of its power-play opportunities. They went 3-for-20 (15 percent) against Pittsburgh in the conference quarterfinals, but New York did kill off 11 of the Pens’ 13 chances on the man advantage.
Washington only scored twice on 13 chances with the man advantage against the Islanders, but it was perfect on the penalty kill. The Capitals didn’t allow the Isles to score on 14 chances and they’re hoping to have similar success in Round 2 against a struggling Rangers’ power play.
“Obviously their PK was great last series, so we have to establish the shot and be ready to go to the net and go to the hard areas and find ways to get pucks to the net,” explained Yandle.
New York played the entire Pittsburgh series without Kevin Klein, but he is ready to go for the start of this series. The defenseman hasn’t played since March 11 when he broke his arm while blocking a shot from Ovechkin.
Yandle, meanwhile, missed a few practices after the first round with an unspecified ailment. However, he was back at practice on Wednesday and is expected to play in Game 1.
Derick Brassard led the New York offense in the opening round, notching a team-high three goals while matching McDonagh and Rick Nash for the club lead with four points.
However, Nash only had one goal after finishing third in the NHL with 42 goals during the regular season. The 30-year-old has 378 goals over 862 career regular-season games (.44 GPG) compared to six in 46 playoff outings (.13 GPG).
The Rangers will begin this series without Mats Zuccarello and the forward could be out for a while. Zuccarello is sidelined indefinitely after taking a McDonagh slap shot to the face in Game 5. The Norwegian forward had two assists in the opening round. James Sheppard is expected to dress as the 12th forward in Zuccarello’s place, while Martin St. Louis could fill his spot on the top line.
St. Louis was the offensive star of last season’s playoff run, but he has struggled in 2014-15. The 39-year-old only had 52 points during the regular season — his lowest total since 2001-02 — and had just one assist in the opening round against the Pens.
After having its last two postseason trips cut short by the Blueshirts, Washington hopes head coach Barry Trotz holds the secret to beating the Rangers. Trotz is off to a solid start in his first season behind the Washington bench, but the former longtime Nashville Predators bench boss has never made it past the second round of the playoffs.
Like Trotz, Ovechkin also has never made it past the second round. Washington’s star winger is coming off a productive first round against the Isles, scoring two goals and adding three assists during the seven-game set.
Top centerman Nicklas Backstrom led the Caps in scoring during Round 1. The Swede had three goals and three assists while mostly skating alongside Ovechkin and right wing Joel Ward. Ward had a goal and three helpers against the Islanders.
Washington, which averaged 2.29 goals per game in the first round, received solid offensive contributions from its second line in the opening round.
Second-line centerman Evgeny Kuznetsov led the way with three goals and an assist and he tallied the game-winner late in the third period of Game 7 with a great individual effort. Wingers Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson added four and three points, respectively. Chimera posted two goals and two assists, while Johansson had a goal and two helpers.
The rest of Washington’s forwards, however, combined for just one goal and seven total points.
Washington’s defense is capable of joining the rush and adding to the club’s scoring depth. Three goals and 13 points came from the back end in Round 1, with John Carlson leading the way with a goal and three assists while Karl Alzner scored twice and added a helper. Matt Niskanen chipped in three assists and Mike Green added two.
Although he surrendered a soft goal in the 2-1 Game 7 win over the Islanders, Braden Holtby had a strong showing overall in the opening round. The goaltender posted a .943 save percentage and 1.63 GAA for the series over six games.
Holtby missed the second game of the opening round due to an illness and Philipp Grubauer replaced him to make his NHL playoff debut. Grubauer won that game with 18 saves before a healthy Holtby returned to the crease for the remainder of the series.
New York went 3-1-0 in the 2014-15 season series against the Caps, who posted their lone win with a 5-2 road victory on March 29.
Brassard and rookie forward Kevin Hayes led the Rangers’ offense in the season series, posting two goals and three assists apiece against Washington. St. Louis added two goals and two helpers versus the Caps.
Ovechkin scored five goals over the four meetings, but also was a minus-four. Backstrom had two assists and a minus-five rating in the series.
Holtby was 1-3-0 with a 3.06 GAA in starting all four games in net against New York. Lundqvist posted a 2-0 record and 2.00 GAA in his two outings versus the Caps in 2014-15.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Saturday in New York.