The Washington Capitals appeared to be headed for a surprising first-round playoff exit at the hands of the New York Rangers last spring, but an offensive surge changed that. The Capitals may be even more potent this season, and Alexander Ovechkin is a big reason.
The two-time reigning Hart Trophy winner will try to continue his torrid start Thursday night when the Capitals host the Rangers for the first time in 2009-10.
The Capitals (2-0-1) have won the last two Southeast Division titles, but were eliminated in seven games by Philadelphia in the opening round of the 2008 playoffs.
They appeared headed for a similar fate against the Rangers (2-1-0) last spring after falling behind 3-1 in the series. However, Washington won the next three games, including a thrilling 2-1 victory at Verizon Center in Game 7 as Sergei Fedorov netted the eventual series-winning goal with 4:59 left.
The Caps outscored the Rangers 11-4 over the final three games before falling to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal.
Ovechkin totaled 11 goals and 10 assists in Washington's 14 playoff games. He's picked up where he left off.
The three-time All-Star leads the NHL with five goals and nine points for Washington, which has a league-high 15 goals and boasts four of the league's top five scorers.
Ovechkin and Semin each scored two goals Tuesday, but Jose Theodore gave up a goal with 1:08 left in overtime as the Capitals fell 6-5 to the Flyers. Three days earlier, Semin and Ovechkin combined for three goals and three assists in a 6-4 win over Toronto.
"We can't afford to allow 10 goals in two games," coach Bruce Boudreau told the Capitals' official Web site. "You're not going to win a lot of hockey games, I don't care who you have on your team."
Boudreau pulled Semyon Varlamov in the second period Tuesday after he gave up four goals on 25 shots.
"Varlamov has to be more mentally tough to play," Boudreau said. "They seem to score in bunches on him right now."
The 21-year-old Varlamov showed great potential in the playoffs against New York, going 4-2 with a 1.17 goals-against average after replacing Theodore, who is 1-0-1 with a 2.00 GAA in two games -- one start -- this season.
The Capitals are 5-0-1 against the Rangers in the last six regular-season meetings.
New York is looking to ride the momentum from Monday's 3-2 victory at New Jersey. Coach John Tortorella unleashed his first tirade of the season to spur the victory, calling a timeout 1:24 into the first period, disgusted with his team's start.
"We didn't come out ready," captain Chris Drury said. "It was pretty obvious at the start of the game and he let us know. From that point on I thought we responded very well.
"You're not always going to get away with bad starts like that."
Michael Del Zotto is seeking another strong performance after getting a goal and an assist against the Devils. The rookie defenseman also had a goal in Saturday's 5-2 win over Ottawa.
Donald Brashear will be making his first appearance in the nation's capital since signing with New York following three seasons as the Caps' enforcer. The left wing was also a central figure in last season's playoff series, when he elbowed then-Rangers center Blair Betts in Game 6, breaking bones in Betts' face and earning a six-game league suspension.