The Capitals begin another playoff quest for that elusive Stanley Cup tonight when they host their former Patrick Division rivals, the Rangers. Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are again the top seed in the East, but we learned last year that we shouldn’t overlook their first-round opponent. Here are five keys to beating the Rangers:
No change in approach: The Capitals went through some growing pains in 2010-11 and trailed the Lightning in the Southeast Division for a big chunk of the season. But the team’s young stars were learning that the hockey rink has two ends (who knew?). With that defensive-first approach, the Capitals finished fourth in goals against while racing to the top of the Eastern Conference standings down the stretch. If the Capitals continue to play responsible hockey, they can go the distance. If they fall back into their old habits, they will have another short postseason stay.
Shoot from everywhere: Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is one of the league’s best, and he’s capable of taking over a series like former Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak did against the Capitals a year ago. Lundqvist is so physically imposing -- he sits on his goal line and fills the net like a shooter tutor -- that when he is on his game, and that's often, it feels like only a fluky goal or a perfect shot can beat him. That’s why the Capitals need to fire pucks from all over the place and generate traffic in front of the net. They will wear him down over a seven-game series and advance to Round 2.
Slow down Gaborik: Speedy winger Marian Gaborik is New York’s only offensive star -- no offense to Ryan Callahan, who is a fine two-way player -- and when he gets on a roll, the goals come in bunches. If the Capitals get physical with Gaborik and keep him on the perimeter, they can get him off his game.
Show off their depth: We know the Capitals will get production from Alex Ovechkin, who has 40 points in 28 career playoff games. But they will need contributions throughout their four offensive lines to go on a deep playoff run. Alexander Semin can’t be a no-show, and role players such as Marcus Johansson, Matt Bradley and Eric Fehr have to show up on the score sheet against the Rangers, who finished fifth in goals against in 2010-11.
Win the special teams battle: The Capitals were excellent on the penalty kill during the season, killing 85.6 percent of their penalties, but like their superstar, Ovechkin, the power play was out of sorts for much of the season. The Capitals have a clear advantage in 5-on-5 play, and with strong special teams, they can make quick work of the Rangers.