New York Hockey: Alex Ovechkin

Rapid Reaction: Rangers 5, Capitals 0

May, 13, 2013

In a tight, gritty series that offered little margin for error, Game 7 did not go as expected. Instead of the nail-biter that many anticipated, the New York Rangers dominated the Washington Capitals with a lopsided 5-0 rout at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Rangers rallied back in the best-of-seven set to punch their ticket for a second-round showdown against the Boston Bruins. Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist recorded his second straight shutout, making 35 saves to send the Capitals packing for the summer.

Piling on: Trailing 3-0 to start the third, the Caps didn’t quite muster the response they’d like, surrendering a back-breaking goal to Rangers captain Ryan Callahan just 13 seconds into play. Callahan took the puck from Caps defenseman John Erskine and backhanded one past Caps goaltender Braden Holtby for a commanding four-goal lead. Mats Zuccarello then piled on for a fifth goal with a pretty deke to spoil any hopes of a Caps' comeback. With assists on both Zuccarello’s third-period goal and Del Zotto’s goal in the second, Rangers center Derick Brassard finished the series with seven assists and nine points. Brassard was acquired in a deal with Columbus at the trade deadline in April.

Foot on the gas: The Rangers built on a 1-0 lead with another pair in the second to mount a comfortable three-goal lead early in the period. Taylor Pyatt pounced on a rebound at 3:24 and Michael Del Zotto notched one minutes later, unleashing a shot from the left point that deflected off Troy Brouwer’s skate at 5:34.

Hot hand: Rugged fourth-liner Arron Asham gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead in the first period, beating Holtby high glove with 6:41 to play. Linemate Chris Kreider made a nice little drop pass to Asham to pick up an assist, while Lundqvist made two key saves on the other end before the play. Lundqvist stoned both Mike Green and Eric Fehr’s rebound attempt to hold the Capitals scoreless.

Let’s get physical: Ovechkin contributed a physical couple of shifts to set the tone in the first period, an opening frame in which the Caps won the territorial battle and dominated the Rangers from the faceoff circle, even though Washington trailed 1-0 after Asham’s goal. But, he was held off the score sheet for the past five games of the series, the longest drought of his NHL playoff career.

All eyes on Boston: While the Rangers went to work on the Capitals, there was a stunning surprise developing at Boston’s TD Garden. The Toronto Maple Leafs blew a three-goal lead in Game 7 in Beantown, giving up two goals in the final 1:22 of play as the Bruins pushed the game to overtime. Patrice Bergeron tallied both the game-tying goal and the winner to hand the Leafs a jaw-dropping, devastating loss.

NEW YORK -- The Alex Ovechkin lovefest that was in full force when the dynamic forward scorched his way through the final month of the regular season has taken an abrupt detour.

Held off the score sheet in two consecutive games, Ovechkin has been forced to shoulder the bulk of the blame recently after his Capitals let a 2-0 series lead evaporate. The New York Rangers' 4-3 win at Madison Square Garden in Game 4 on Wednesday night evened the series at 2.

For whatever reason, Ovechkin seems to garner an undue amount of scrutiny compared with other stars around the league, and that has not changed during the Capitals' first-round series against the Rangers.

Most recently, No. 8 has been criticized for a questionable effort on two particularly critical plays that both resulted in game-winning goals for the Rangers.

Before Derek Stepan’s third-period marker in Game 3, Ovechkin can be seen using his stick in the defensive zone in an attempt to pressure defenseman Ryan McDonagh before drifting to the middle of the ice, looking disengaged from the play. That caused a brief kerfuffle after McDonagh said after the game he thought Ovechkin seemed “tired” on that shift. Ovechkin refuted that before Game 4.

"I feel normal, you know. I don’t know why he say that," Ovechkin said. "Of course they try to find something, if they're winning they try to find somebody [who] looks tired, somebody looks lazy, somebody looks somewhat bad, so I don’t care what he [says].”

Another Capitals loss in Game 4, in which he was held to only one shot on goal (five of his shots were blocked, three missed), didn’t make things much better. One particular incident, in which he is seen listlessly drifting in from the blue line while Stepan scores the winner in Game 4, raised more concerns.

Cue the familiar narrative.

But Ovechkin owned up to his subpar play and vowed the need for him and linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson to step up.

"Everybody [knows] Backy, me and JoJo have to play better," Ovechkin said after practice Thursday, according to the Washington Times.

Actually, Ovechkin makes a good point here. While he is correct in assuming some of the culpability for the Capitals’ past two losses, he is not alone. The Capitals’ top line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Johansson has combined for one point during that stretch. Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer, key contributors in the regular season, have been limited to just one point apiece this series.

It’s also worth pointing out that both Backstrom and Johansson were on the ice for Stepan’s winner the other night, too. Neither player looked particularly spirited in their effort on the play.

It would be wrong to absolve Ovechkin from his role in the past two losses, but it would be similarly wrong to not include at least a few others as well.

Bottom line: Ovechkin needs to be better. So do his teammates.


Speaking of teammates, Martin Erat will not play in Game 5 for the Capitals when they host the Rangers Friday in D.C.

The second-line winger, acquired by Washington in a trade with Nashville at the deadline, was forced from Wednesday’s game with an apparent left wrist or hand injury. He left after a collision (incidentally, one that was caused by an aggressive backcheck by Ovechkin) on Stepan’s short-handed rush in the first period of Game 4. Stepan got sandwiched between the two players and Erat crashed into his own net, landing awkwardly on his left arm.

The Capitals have brought up right wingers Joey Crabb and Tom Wilson from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League to give them options to fill the hole in the lineup.

Rangers now have the momentum

May, 9, 2013
All of a sudden, it seems this series has taken a turn.

It didn’t happen right away for the Rangers, who were outplayed in the first two games of their first-round matchup against the Capitals. But, since falling behind 2-0 after a disheartening trip to D.C., the Rangers have steadily regained traction in this best-of-seven set.

With a 4-3 win over the Caps at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, the Rangers evened the series, 2-2, and tilted momentum in their favor heading into Game 5.

[+] EnlargeRyane Clowe
AP Photo/Kathy WillensThe Rangers beat the Caps to tie the series at two games apiece.
“So far, we’re just taking care of business at home. That’s what we need to do.” said Henrik Lundqvist, who finished with 27 saves. “Coming back home, being down two games, we had a lot of pressure, but we stepped up there. So far we just tied the series. We still need to do whatever we can to get the next one.”

Carl Hagelin led the team with a goal and two assists, Derick Brassard chipped in with another masterful multi-point performance, and the Rangers held Alex Ovechkin off the score sheet for the second straight game.

It was the best complete effort this series for the Rangers, who asserted themselves on the forecheck, defended well in their own zone, and didn’t surrender the special-teams battle.

“They were working harder. They were coming harder,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “They made some adjustments so we’ll have to adjust now.”

With the Capitals trailing the Rangers by two goals in the third period, Alzner’s shot that deflected off Mathieu Perreault at 7:31 pulled the Capitals within one, 4-3, but the Rangers refused to let another two-goal lead dissolve.

After building a 2-0 advantage earlier in the game on goals from Hagelin and Brad Richards, the Rangers let the Capitals climb right back into it during the middle frame. In fact, it was Washington that sapped the life out of Madison Square Garden with Troy Brouwer’s backhander that beat Lundqvist and knotted the score at 2 with 17.1 seconds to play.

Caps veteran Jason Chimera essentially nullified that surge, however, with an interference penalty as the second period expired, giving the Rangers a power play to start the third.

Brassard made a deft backhanded dish to find defenseman Dan Girardi all alone at the left point for a slap shot that beat Braden Holtby 59 seconds in and re-ignited a restless home crowd.

Brassard made a brilliant cross-ice feed to set up Hagelin’s goal earlier in the game.

“It’s incredible,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said of Brassard’s game. “His playmaking ability is so crucial.”

After an underwhelming start to the series, Brassard has been impressive in the past two games, during which he has registered one goal and five points.

“The first two games, I was a little bit nervous, but when I’m in my game, I make plays,” said Brassard, who was awarded the team’s MVP Broadway Hat. “I just wanna take that game [into] Washington.”

The No. 6 seed Rangers now face a best-of-three against the No. 3 seed Capitals, who have home-ice advantage with both Games 5 and 7 (if necessary) at the Verizon Center.

After giving up the first pair of games in hostile territory, the Rangers know they are in line for a tough test.

“I think our resiliency has really shown in these last two games and we’re going to need that when we go to Washington, because they’ll surge there,” coach John Tortorella said. “We’ve just got to find a way to keep our head above water and try to win a game.”

Wednesday’s win wasn’t without its bumps, but the Rangers managed the swings and surges better than they have all series. To best the offensively loaded Capitals, especially on the road, the Rangers need to stick to that blueprint.

“We felt our first two games weren’t consistent enough,” McDonagh said. “If there’s something we can take out of our success these past two games, it’s more of the same.”

The Capitals will be ready.

“It’s a three-game series now,” said Holtby, who finished the night with 30 saves. “We still have home-ice advantage, Like I said before, we knew it was going to be a tough series. We learned last year that this team that we are playing doesn’t give up and we don’t either. Coming in, we didn’t care how many games it took to win as long as we won four out of seven.”

Rapid Reaction: Rangers 4, Caps 3

May, 6, 2013
With the help of Derek Stepan's deciding goal in the third period, the New York Rangers prevented the Washington Capitals from taking what would've been a commanding three-game lead to the series while holding court at Madison Square Garden with a 4-3 victory. The Blueshirts now have a chance to even the best-of-seven series on Wednesday in Game 4 at home.

With the game tied at 3-3, Stepan tallied his first goal of the playoffs with an expert tip at the right post to reclaim the lead for the Rangers with 6:25 to play. Earlier in the frame, the Caps and Rangers traded goals, with fourth-liner Arron Asham's goal from the doorstep in the opening minutes and Jay Beagle's deflection of Jack Hillen's shot for the equalizer at 7:19.

Derick Brassard finished the game with one goal and two assists to lead the Rangers with three points.

Grass is always Green-er: With his second score in as many games, Capitals defenseman Mike Green beat Henrik Lundqvist from the right circle for a game-tying goal with 2:41 remaining in the second. Green’s goal was the result of a Rangers gaffe earlier in the play when defenseman Michael Del Zotto failed to play the puck behind the net, allowing Washington to keep it in zone. Green, who knotted the score at 2-2, also notched the game-winner for Washington on Saturday in the Capitals' 1-0 overtime win in Game 2.

Penalty parade: The Capitals had trouble staying out of the box through the first two periods, taking six penalties in the opening 27 minutes. Even though the Rangers tallied only once on the man-advantage -- Brian Boyle’s first goal of the playoffs came just as a Washington penalty expired -- the power play appeared infinitely more active than in the previous two games of the series.

First strike: The Capitals took the crowd out of the game early, zapping the building’s energy with a goal just 4:06 into play. Nicklas Backstrom deflected John Carlson’s deep wrist shot for a 1-0 lead, a goal that was reviewed for a potential high stick but ultimately upheld.

Just barely: After eight straight failed power-play attempts, the Rangers cashed in just as their second man-up opportunity of the game expired, with Washington’s Joel Ward emerging from the box for high-sticking. Boyle drove to the net and ripped a shot off between the legs of Green to beat Braden Holtby and tie the game at 12:50 of the first period.

Staal returns: No Ranger on the ice received a more thunderous welcome than Marc Staal in his return to the lineup after missing two months with an injured right eye. The 26-year-old Staal played for the first time since being struck in the eye with a puck on March 5. Staal, who now wears a visor, was paired with Anton Stralman on defense.

Powe!: Rangers fourth-line forward Darroll Powe was forced from the game after initiating a hard hit on Ward along the boards in the first period. Though it was Powe who laid the hit on Ward, he appeared to catch an elbow that left him woozy while getting up and skating off to the bench. Powe missed time earlier this season with a concussion.

Up next: Rangers vs. Caps, Game 4, Wednesday at 7:30.

W2W4: Rangers vs. Capitals, Game 3

May, 6, 2013
At a glance: Down two games in their first-round matchup against the Washington Capitals, the Rangers are desperate to win a game at home as the series shifts to New York on Monday night at 7:30.

Looking to avoid that dreaded 3-0 hole, the Rangers hope to get a lift from the crowd at Madison Square Garden as they try to stop Alex Ovechkin and the Caps' venerable power play from striking again.

Here is what to watch for:

Special teams: In a tight battle projected to come down to special teams, the Capitals have had the distinct edge. Washington has tallied a power-play goal in each of the first two games -- that unit was ranked first overall in the league during the regular season -- and boasts a stout penalty kill that has held the Rangers without a man-up goal this series. The Blueshirts' ailing power play failed to even register a shot on goal during two critical opportunities late in Saturday's 1-0 overtime loss in D.C.

On the mend: Both Derek Dorsett (collarbone) and Brian Boyle (lower body) returned to action on Saturday, providing the Rangers some added size and grit. They have two other players who are inching toward a return, as Ryane Clowe (believed to be a concussion) and defenseman Marc Staal (eye) appear to be making progress.

Staal's presence would be a massive boost for the Rangers' blue line as it tries to contain Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer.

Holt up: With the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in net, the Rangers enjoy a clear advantage in the goaltending department. But New York wasted a sensational 37-save performance by Henrik Lundqvist on Saturday, while 23-year-old Capitals counterpart Braden Holtby recorded the shutout. Holtby hasn't had to face the same pressure as Lundqvist, but he has been stellar for the Capitals in limiting the Rangers to only one goal combined over the first two games.

Rapid Reaction: Caps 1, Rangers 0 (OT)

May, 4, 2013
What it means: Washington's Mike Green tallied on the power play for the game winner eight minutes into overtime as the Caps knocked off the Rangers 1-0 and took a commanding 2-0 series lead. Two failed power plays for the Rangers late in the game, during which they were held without a shot, spoiled a sensational performance from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Caps netminder Braden Holtby was also impressive, making 24 saves for the shutout.

Headed to OT: There were plenty of scoring chances in the third period, but neither team could snap the 0-0 tie. Washington's Marcus Johansson, who hesitated too long with a wide-open net earlier in the game, passed up a shot on a two-on-one, dishing back to Nicklas Backstrom instead. Rick Nash powered his way to the net and hit the left post but drew a penalty to put the Rangers on the power play with 3:44 left in regulation. The Rangers couldn't cash in on the man advantage, as the Caps' penalty-killing unit held the Rangers without a shot -- an inspired effort that had the crowd buzzing. Both goaltenders also made stellar saves in the third to preserve the scoreless tie. Holtby sealed the left post to stop Ryan Callahan on the short side early in the period, while Lundqvist stoned Caps veteran Jason Chimera with his right pad midway through the frame.

No call: The Rangers appeared incensed when a puck deflected off Washington's Karl Alzner up over the glass in the Caps' defensive zone yet no delay of game penalty was called. It was not immediately clear why the play didn't warrant a whistle, though it may have been negated by the fact that the puck caromed off Alzner as opposed to him shooting it over the glass.

Goaltending clinic: Both Lundqvist and Holtby were stellar through the first 40 minutes, but Lundqvist handled the bulk of the workload in turning away all 25 shots faced in the opening two periods. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner made a terrific stop against Mathieu Perreault in front during the first and got some help from defenseman Ryan McDonagh in thwarting a Grade-A chance from Johansson in the second. Johansson had an open net with Lundqvist face down in the crease, but McDonagh poked his stick to stop Johansson from lifting the puck for what would have been an easy goal.

Scoreless first: Neither team scored, but there was no shortage of fireworks in what was a chippy first period. Alex Ovechkin leveled winger Carl Hagelin, while Rangers captain Callahan set the tone with a team-leading five hits. Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy and Dorsett exchanged some words before Oleksy drew an offensive-zone penalty on Dorsett late in the frame. The period ended with Mats Zuccarello and Green receiving matching roughing minors with less than a minute remaining.

Return to action: The Rangers returned both Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett to the lineup Saturday, a change that was kept under wraps until pregame warm-ups. Boyle played in his first game since suffering a lower-body injury against the Flyers on April 16. Dorsett, who was acquired at the trade deadline in a deal with Columbus, made his Rangers debut after missing almost two months with a fractured collarbone.

Up next: Game 3 is Monday at Madison Square Garden at 7:30 p.m.

W2W4: Rangers at Caps, Game 2

May, 4, 2013
At a glance: Down 1-0 after a Capitals win on home ice Thursday, the Rangers look to even the series before returning home to Madison Square Garden for Games 3 and 4. Alex Ovechkin and Co. took control of the game early Thursday night and put steady pressure on Henrik Lundqvist en route to a 3-1 win at a raucous Verizon Center. The Blueshirts must win the territorial battle with a strong start Saturday if they want to neutralize the crowd and make 23-year-old Caps netminder Braden Holtby sweat. They say a series doesn’t start until a team wins a game on the road; the Rangers aim to make that happen Saturday.

On the mend: Rangers forward Ryane Clowe skated Friday for the first time since being sidelined with an undisclosed injury (believed to be a concussion) last week and said he may be available for Game 2. “I’m not ruling myself out for [Saturday],” Clowe said, adding that conditioning would not be a determining factor in his return. To that end, coach John Tortorella confirmed that the team won’t hesitate in getting healthy players back into the lineup. “If I think a player will help us, he will play,” he said. Forwards Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett and defenseman Marc Staal all practiced on Friday as well and could return to the lineup during this series.

Out of the box: A major point of emphasis heading into Game 2 for the Rangers will be staying disciplined against the Capitals and their top-ranked power-play. Despite a strong penalty-killing effort to start Game 1, the Rangers eventually got burned after giving the Capitals their fourth man-up opportunity of the game. The Rangers took six penalties in total on Thursday, including a bench minor for too many men on the ice just 34 seconds into play.

Watch out for this guy: Capitals veteran forward Jason Chimera seems to have an uncanny knack for scoring come playoff time, and he’s been a nightmare for the Rangers over the past few years. Chimera notched his eighth career playoff goal; six of those have come against the Rangers.

Not a bad debut: Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy had a terrific NHL playoffs debut. The 27-year-old blue-liner, called up from the minors in March, executed a perfect tape-to-tape pass for Marcus Johansson’s seamless go-ahead goal Thursday. Oleksy also took a puck to the face later in the game, but returned to the ice after some quick repairs.

Next level: Ovechkin vs. Lundqvist

May, 3, 2013

A visual look at the goal locations for Alex Ovechkin.

Here's a "Next Level" look inside the matchup that will likely determine the outcome of the New York Rangers-Washington Capitals series.

The image above shows Capitals star Alex Ovechkin's scoring strengths.

Ovechkin scored 18 of his 32 goals to the stick side of the goaltender this season. Of those 18 stick side goals, 13 were below the blocker.

But keep this in mind: Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was tough to beat low to the stick side, allowing only 9 goals low stick this season, his fewest in any zone.

Lundqvist's weakness was glove-side, high shots, which interestingly is an area in which Ovechkin does not score a lot.

The image below shows the areas in which Lundqvist allows the most/least goals.

Moore comes up empty, Ovi sets record

May, 3, 2013
With the Rangers down 3-1 and trying to claw their way back into the game late in the third, defenseman John Moore came about as close as possible to whittling the Capitals' lead with 3:56 remaining in regulation.

Although Moore's short-side attempt was initially ruled a no goal, play was stopped for several minutes as officials reviewed the play.

Caps netminder Braden Holtby managed to snag Moore's attempt with his blocker, which appeared to be in the net, but there was no clear view of the puck crossing the line.

"I thought it went in," Moore said, "[but] I haven't seen a replay or anything."

Moore sounded resigned to the call, however, and vowed to put it away next time.

"I'm no expert on the rulebook, but there has to be a definitive puck across the line and there's a lot of equipment and bodies right there at the net," Moore said. "Again, it was a bang-bang play. It was tough for me to see it. It's probably even tougher for the official to see it, but hindsight is 20-20 with the luxury of slow-motion and everything. I've just got to put it through the net next time."

• • •
Alex Ovechkin's second-period power-play marker was his first playoff goal of 2013 but the 31st of his career, a franchise record for Washington. Ovechkin entered Thursday's game tied with Peter Bondra.

• • •

Birthday boy Jason Chimera, who turned 34 Thursday, tallied his eighth career playoff goal. Of those eight, six have come against the Rangers.

Rapid Reaction: Caps 3, Rangers 1

May, 2, 2013

WASHINGTON -- What it means: The Capitals erased a 1-0 first-period deficit with three unanswered goals to take Game 1 of their first-round series with a 3-1 win against the Rangers at Verizon Center in D.C. Harnessing the momentum in their own building, the Caps took control of the game with a second-period surge that started with Alex Ovechkin's game-tying goal, continued with a failed Rangers' 5-on-3 power-play, and was capped by a pair of markers within a span of 46 seconds. Capitals netminder Braden Holtby was impressive in making 35 saves to give the Caps a 1-0 series edge Thursday night.

All tied up: With his first goal of the playoffs, Ovechkin knotted the game at 1 in the second period with a man-up goal for the Caps’ top-ranked power-play unit. Ovechkin crashed the net to bury Mike Green’s point shot, which banked off the boards wide, at 6:59 to spark the Capitals second-period surge.

Goal? Again? The sea of red at Verizon Center was rocking after the Capitals killed off a critical, 56-second 5-on-3 power-play for the Rangers that resulted from a heated skirmish in front of Washington’s net. The Caps killed off the remaining 5-on-4 as well and carried that momentum to pad their lead in the middle frame with two goals in a span of 46 seconds. Caps defenseman Steven Oleksy made a beautiful tape-to-tape pass to find Marcus Johansson behind the Rangers defense for a seamless breakaway goal at 14:21 and veteran Jason Chimera extended the lead less than a minute later. Chimera, who has been an absolute nightmare for the Rangers in previous playoff series, threw the puck on net for a 3-1 lead with 4:53 remaining.

Tough break: Though it appeared the Rangers might have pulled within a goal late in the third, a lengthy video review on defenseman John Moore's attempt upheld the initial ruling on the ice: no goal. Moore's shot was snagged by Holtby behind his back, and though it appeared Holtby's blocker was in the net, the video evidence was not enough to overturn the call.

Mis-lead: Dominated for most of the first period, the Rangers escaped with a 1-0 lead on Carl Hagelin’s wraparound goal with 3:16 remaining – a shot that banked in off Capitals defenseman John Erskine’s skate. Meanwhile the Capitals controlled possession for much of the frame, with Lundqvist the sole reason the Rangers avoided an early hole. Lundqvist made 9 saves before the Rangers registered their first shot on goal 8:07 into play.

Close call: Ovechkin had a prime opportunity to tie the game late in the first period when a breakaway left him all alone against Lundqvist, but the three-time Rocket Richard trophy winner couldn’t squeeze the puck inside the right post and hit iron instead with less than a minute remaining.

Up next: Game 2, Saturday in D.C. at 12 p.m.

W2W4: Rangers at Caps, Game 1

May, 2, 2013
At a glance: After four days off to rest and prepare, the No. 6-seed Rangers and No. 3-seed Capitals finally square off in Washington, D.C., for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Thursday night at Verizon Center. With plenty of time to stew over last spring’s postseason exit -- the Rangers bounced the Capitals in the semifinals -- Washington seeks revenge. The two clubs meet in the playoffs for the third consecutive year with plenty of storylines and intrigue to consider.

Great No. 8: After a slow start to the season, in part because of his transition to right wing, Alex Ovechkin finished the season at a startling pace as he led the Caps to yet another Southeast Division title. With a sensational six weeks, beginning in mid-March, Ovechkin was lights-out for the Capitals. Earning his third Rocket Richard trophy, Ovechkin finished the season with 32 goals and 56 points, including a stunning 14 goals and 22 points in 13 games during the month of April. Who is going to contain him? The top pair of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh seems the obvious choice, though coach John Tortorella hinted that he may split the two defensemen to achieve more balance on the back end.

Battle in nets: One of the key X-factors will be the play of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Though the Caps appear to be the team peaking at the right time with eight wins in their last 10 games, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is fully capable of stealing a game and changing the complexion of the series. Lundqvist enters the playoffs with a 24-16-3 record, .926 save percentage and 2.05 goals against average. He also recorded a shutout in Saturday’s 4-0 win against the Devils, his 14th consecutive start. Braden Holtby is the young up-and-comer, but he’s got two rounds of playoff experience under his belt now after last season. The 23-year-old is coming off a fine regular season of his own, including wins in nine of his last 10 starts.

Special teams: Rangers winger Rick Nash was asked the key to the series on Wednesday. His answer? Special teams. Here’s why: The Caps enter the post-season with the best power-play in the league, ranking first overall with a whopping 44 man-up goals and a dazzling 26.8% success rate. By contrast, the Rangers rank 23rd in the league at 15.7% and were blanked on all six power-play opportunities in their season finale against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. Whether they can break through against the Caps will be a big question mark; the Caps’ penalty kill is one of the league’s worst; Washington ranks 27th with only a 77.9% kill rate.

Ward returns: Sidelined for the past nine games since suffering a knee injury earlier this month, Washington’s Joel Ward returns for the Capitals Thursday night. The 32-year-old forward, who has 10 goals and 22 points in 32 career playoff games, adds another scoring threat to Washington’s high-octane offense. Ward scored the series-clinching game-winner in overtime of Game 7 to knock off the Boston Bruins in Round 1 last April.

Staal unlikely: Though he has been practicing with the team for weeks, Marc Staal said he is “probably” not going to play in Game 1. The 26-year-old defenseman has not played since being struck in the right eye with a puck March 5, but appears to be inching toward a return. Though he is not expected to be in the lineup Thursday, it is possible that Staal will be available later in the series.

Rapid Reaction: Caps 3, Rangers 2  (SO)

March, 24, 2013
The New York Rangers rallied back from an early two-goal deficit to tie the game but fell 3-2 in a four-round shootout to the surging Washington Capitals. Both Alex Ovehckin, who finished the night with a goal and an assist, and Nicklas Backstrom tallied in the skills competition as the Capitals collected their third straight win. With 33 points, however, the Blueshirts climbed back into the playoff picture in the East, securing eight place with the Carolina Hurricanes idle.

Back in action: After missing 15 games with a back injury, fourth-line forward Arron Asham gave the Rangers some life with his first-period goal that cut the Capitals’ lead in half, 2-1. On a 2-on-1 rush, Asham beat Caps goaltender Braden Holtby high-glove for his second goal of the season at 14:12. The fourth line continued to spark the Blueshirts as Darroll Powe drew a penalty that helped the Rangers to a five-on-three power play.

All tied up: With the Rangers on the two-man advantage, Derek Stepan banked in a bad-angle shot to tie the game with 1:57 remaining in the first period. Stepan's ninth goal of the season was the Rangers' first power-play marker in seven games.

Big boost: The Rangers’ special teams delivered again in the second period, this time on the penalty kill. With the Caps on a five-on-three early in the middle frame, the Rangers shut them down to retain their end-of-first-period momentum and ignite the Garden crowd.

Third-line duty: Marian Gaborik found himself back on the third line Sunday night with center Brian Boyle and left wing Taylor Pyatt while recently recalled Chris Kreider earned a promotion to the first, where he skated with center Brad Richards and Rick Nash.

Hot start: Riding a two-game winning streak into Sunday’s match, the Capitals came out with confidence and took a 2-0 lead midway through the first. After a puck bounced off Nicklas Backstrom for a power-play goal at 7:54, Ovechkin followed up with a deflection minutes later. It was No. 8’s sixth goal in the past five games. He has nine points during that span.

Easy Mac: Ryan McDonagh missed some time in the second period after a knee-on-knee collision with Ovechkin, but he returned to the ice and finished the middle frame with seven shifts.

Up next: Rangers vs. Flyers at 7 p.m.

W2W4: Rangers vs. Capitals

March, 24, 2013
At a glance: The Rangers look to get back on track after one of their most demoralizing defeats of the season -- a 3-1 loss to the last-place Florida Panthers on Thursday -- but they’ll host a Washington Capitals team in the midst of an encouraging run. Though they have toiled at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings because of their slow start to the season, the Caps beat up on the Winnipeg Jets in back-to-back games heading into this weekend.

Sluggish starts: Speaking of slow starts, look for the Rangers to come out of the gates buzzing, as their first period will likely be a point of emphasis. The Rangers were too passive against the Panthers and have too often let their opponents dictate play in the opening frame.

Offensive outburst: In their last two wins, the Capitals outscored the Southeast-leading Jets by a whopping margin of 10-1 to pull within five points of the division lead and three points of the eighth (and last playoff) spot in the Eastern Conference. After struggling through stretches this season, Alex Ovechkin is back producing at a nice clip; the dynamic winger has seven points (five goals, two assists) over the past four games and a power-play goal in the last three.

Close call: The Rangers must be feeling a sense of relief to have star forward Rick Nash in the lineup for Sunday’s match. Nash escaped supplementary discipline for a questionable hit on Florida’s Tomas Kopecky Thursday night. So many people thought the hit, which wasn't penalized, deserved a suspension that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety felt compelled to release a video explaining why the play did NOT pass the threshold for a fine or ban. That’s good news for the Rangers, who went 0-3-1 when Nash was sidelined last month with injury.

Back in action: It’s not surprising that the Capitals’ recent surge has coincided with the return of two of their top players. Veteran center Brooks Laich made his season debut last week after missing the first half of the season with a groin injury. Defenseman Mike Green returned for the Caps on Thursday after missing almost a month, also with a groin injury.

Miller out: It appears rookie forward J.T. Miller will sit out Sunday’s game with a left wrist injury, sustained in Thursday’s loss to the Panthers. Miller left the game briefly but returned; he is considered day-to-day. The Rangers recalled Kris Newbury from the AHL’s Connecticut Whale.

Rapid Reaction: Devils 3, Caps 2 (OT)

January, 25, 2013
At a glance: Despite a late-game comeback from the Capitals and a stellar night by goaltender Michal Neuvirth, the Devils knocked off Washington 3-2 in overtime on Ilya Kovalchuk's game winner to improve to 3-0-0. Meanwhile, former Devils assistant Adam Oates' return to New Jersey was spoiled as the hapless Capitals sunk to 0-3-1.

Tie game: Capitals defenseman Mike Green single-handedly earned his team their first point of the season with his game-tying goal in the third. Green's point shot got past Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur to knot the game at 2 with 2:56 to play. Had the Capitals not pushed the game to overtime, they'd have been the lone team in the league without a point this season.

Cashing in: With a two-man advantage late in the second period, alternate captain Patrik Elias gave the Devils a 2-0 lead. With two Caps in the box and the Devils on the 5-on-3, Elias pounced on a rebound from Marek Zidlicky’s shot for a power-play goal, his first of the season.

Answer back: Trailing 2-0, the Capitals answered back with their own 5-on-3 goal in the third period. A textbook passing play led to an easy one for Mike Ribeiro, who cut the Devils' lead in half, 2-1, at 12:45.

End of experiment: After spending the first three games playing right wing -- and managing only one assist during that span -- the Capitals abandoned their Alex Ovechkin experiment and moved him back to the left side. It was a strange switch, however, as Oates placed him on a line with grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb to start the game. Ovechkin eventually shuffled to play with Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer by the second period.

Sweet shot: Stephen Gionta, the Devils' Cinderella story of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, opened scoring in the first period with his first goal of the season, at 13:55. Center Jacob Josefson picked up an assist on Gionta’s goal after making a slick move to split two Caps defenders and set up the play.

Controlling play: Before the game, Devils coach Pete DeBoer said he wanted to see his team dictate play. They did that in the second period, rattling off 10 unanswered shots on goal in the last 4:47 of play. The Capitals, who spent a good chunk of the frame in the penalty box, did not manage a shot for the last 7:25 of play.

Devils debut: Replacing fellow tough guy Cam Janssen in the lineup, veteran forward Krys Barch played in his first game since signing with the Devils this summer.

Up Next: Devils at Canadiens, Sunday at 6 p.m.

W2W4: Devils vs. Capitals

January, 25, 2013
At a glance: The Devils knocked off a winless Flyers squad Tuesday to preserve their unblemished record, and will face yet another desperate team in the 0-3-0 Capitals on Friday. Coming off a wretched 4-1 loss to the Canadiens on Thursday, the Caps are aiming to secure their first win of the season against the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

Familiar foe: The Devils will face former assistant coach Adam Oates when the two teams square off. Oates -- who was also inducted into the Hall of Fame, in addition to being named head coach of the Capitals -- spent the past two seasons behind the bench as an assistant in New Jersey. Devils coach Pete DeBoer said the Caps have a “helluva coach” and that he warned the Devils that the Capitals are a “dangerous team.”

Back to Brodeur: The Devils will have Martin Brodeur back in net after the 40-year-old posted wins in his first two starts. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer has surrendered only one goal on 43 shots faced through the first two games of the season.

Goaltending woes: While the Devils boast one of the all-time greats in goal, the Capitals are still trying to sort out their issues in net. After a terrific playoff performance last spring, 23-year-old Braden Holtby surrendered an unsightly 10 goals in his first two starts, prompting Oates to give Michal Neuvirth the nod on Thursday. Oates will turn Neuvirth again Friday, hoping he can stop the bleeding and turn things around.

Ovi MIA: Superstar Alex Ovechkin is off to a lackluster start for the Capitals. The 27-year-old forward, who spent the lockout playing in his native Russia, has been limited to only one point in the first three games of the season.

Henrique nearing return: 2012 Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique is getting closer to his return from a hand injury. The 22-year-old center, one of the team’s clutch performers in last year's playoffs, skated with the team Friday morning for the first time since undergoing surgery on his thumb. DeBoer said Henrique is still 7-to-10 days from making his season debut.

Krys-tal clear: According to the Devils' lines in Friday morning’s skate, veteran forward Krys Barch will play his first game of the season Friday. The 32-year-old winger, who signed with New Jersey as a free agent this summer, spent the bulk of last season with the Panthers, where he racked up 92 penalty minutes.