- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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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.