Commentary

Keys to Rangers' series vs. Capitals

Goaltending is one factor as Blueshirts run into their playoff nemesis -- again

Updated: April 28, 2012, 3:22 PM ET
By Katie Strang | ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Rangers sure didn't glide through their first-round matchup against the eighth-seeded Senators, and now they have a familiar foe staring them down in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Washington Capitals have knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs in their past two postseason appearances (2009, 2011) and are coming off a stunning upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Here are the five things the Rangers need to do to avoid a three-peat.

1. Hank being Hank

If there was any doubt about Henrik Lundqvist's importance to the first-seeded Rangers, his nomination for both the Hart and Vezina trophies should quell any skepticism. The 30-year-old netminder was terrific in leading the team to the top of the conference standings in the regular season and he has continued to shine through the first round of the playoffs.

Capped by a stellar 26-save performance in Game 7, Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage. Lundqvist will have to sustain his play for the Rangers to avoid another disappointing letdown; last year, he gave up 13 goals over five games in the team's first-round exit.

2. Gaby, get going

The Rangers are not talented enough to make it to the conference finals without their offensive leaders playing up to their billing.

No star player is shouldering more pressure to perform for the Rangers than sniper Marian Gaborik. Following a 41-goal regular season, the winger disappeared in the team's best-of-seven set against the Sens. Gaborik has been limited to one goal and two assists thus far and needs to do better. Coach John Tortorella will have no problem sitting him down if not. When asked Friday if he thinks big performances from young players like Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin could push the veterans, Tortorella responded, "It's going to, as far as ice time."

3. Rookie contributions

Gaborik's struggles have revealed a silver lining for the Rangers, particularly the emergence of Kreider, a 20-year-old rookie. And if he can continue to progress as he has through his first five NHL games, the Rangers are in good shape.

After scoring what ultimately served as the game-winner in Game 6 in Ottawa, the recently signed collegiate-star-turned-pro delivered his finest game as a Ranger to help boost the team past the Senators in Game 7 on Thursday. Kreider, who has been playing on a line with second-year center Derek Stepan and captain Ryan Callahan, has also earned the trust of his coach. Tortorella used him on the power play Thursday night and in a key defensive situation in the last minute of the game.

4. Put pressure on Holtby

Goaltender Braden Holtby became the unexpected hero of the Capitals' first-round success with his clutch 31-save performance as the team knocked off the Bruins in Game 7 on Wednesday. Thrust into the starting role with injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, Holtby, 22, has been poised and promising in goal for the Caps. If the Rangers want to get past Washington on the third try, they'll have to create traffic in front, crowd the crease and rattle his cage.

5. Contain Caps' star power

How is this for a staggering stat? The Caps are a stunning 11-1-0 in games during which Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green all played. And while Ovechkin's ice time has been limited this postseason by the no-nonsense coach Dale Hunter, the Rangers will have to limit Washington's stars just as they neutralized Ottawa's top four of Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson and defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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