Earlier, I detailed the seemingly never-ending postseason rivalry between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, which will renew this week in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This season's version of the Rangers is not too much different than those of seasons past, but for those who need a crash course, allow me to break down the Capitals' first postseason opponent.
So What's Their Deal?
The 2012-2013 Rangers were picked as Stanley Cup favorites by many, but through the first 27 games of a 48-game season, they sat in 10th place in the Eastern Conference at 13-12-2. Despite acquiring an elite goal scorer in Rick Nash during the offseason, New York was actually averaging fewer goals per game after 27 games (2.33) than they did last season (2.71).
The Rangers, however, steadily improved, finishing the season scoring 2.62 goals per game and winning 10 of 14 in April after losing eight of their last 12 games in March. By defeating the New Jersey Devils 4-0 Saturday afternoon (and with help from the Ottawa Senators, who lost 2-1 in regulation to the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday evening), New York clinched the sixth seed and a first-round date with Washington.
Who They Got?
Here are the Rangers' most recent forward lines and defensive pairs.
Rick Nash - Brad Richards - Mats Zuccarello
Carl Hagelin - Derek Stepan - Ryan Callahan
Taylor Pyatt - Derick Brassard - Chris Kreider
Darroll Powe - Kris Newbury - Arron Asham
Michael Del Zotto - Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh - Anton Stralman
John Moore - Steve Eminger
The Rangers acquired Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets last July, but in doing so, they were forced to part with their glue guys, players who do the things that go unnoticed, but are integral to a team's success. New York sent forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov to Columbus and those two were sorely missed.
The two teams became trade partners again during the trade deadline; the Blue Jackets acquired disgruntled winger Marian Gaborik for forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore. Only six forwards remain from last season's run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Including his totals from Columbus, Brassard was one of six Rangers to score double-digit goals this season, led by Nash's 21. Derek Stepan led the Rangers with 44 points.
Ryane Clowe, acquired from the San Jose Sharks at the deadline, has three goals and eight points in 12 games with the Rangers, but is currently sidelined with an undisclosed injury.
On the defensive end, Dan Girardi led all NHL defensemen with 125 blocked shots, which has become the norm. New York, however, has been without Marc Staal, who injured his right eye when he was struck by a deflected puck in early March. Staal, who is normally tasked with shutting down the opposition's top offensive threats, may not return for the series.
And of course, there's Lundqvist, the Rangers' workhorse who once again carried the load this season, winning a league-high 24 games and making a league-high 43 starts.
How Do They Play?
The Rangers' identity under Coach John Tortorella has been one defined by self-sacrifice. They are a stingy defensive team that puts a heavy emphasis on blocking shots. The Rangers only allowed 2.25 goals against per game this season, fourth-fewest in the NHL, while blocking 773 shots (sixth-most) and dishing out 1.413 hits (third-most).
"They're a real physical team," Capitals forward Eric Fehr said Saturday. "It's going to be a tough opponent. It's going to be a man's series, no question."
New York may be a physical team, but it is also a disciplined team. The Capitals may have the league's best power play at 26.8%, but tjhe Rangers are the least penalized team in the league with 9.2 penalty minutes per game. That will surely play a large role in the series.
Unlike last season, when they also utilized a similar defense-first style under former head coach Dale Hunter, the Capitals will be playing under Adam Oates's more balanced, up-tempo style, which should make for an intriguing matchup.
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