The Capitals return to the playoffs as the East's top seed -- a year after being upset by Montreal in the first round -- with a new defensive philosophy they hope can take them to the Cup. The Rangers were a bit fortuitous to earn their first playoff berth since their first-round exit to the same Capitals two seasons ago, thanks to a Hurricanes loss in the final game of the season.
Here's the breakdown.
Forwards: Any line that starts with the name Alexander Ovechkin immediately has an advantage over almost any other you can throw out. When you look up and down the Caps' lines, it doesn't drop much either, especially when at full strength. And it looks like they are on their way to being just that as Alexander Semin seems prepared to return. It's especially a mismatch when looking at the Rangers' group of forwards. There's Marian Gaborik (22 goals this season) and then four centers all with at least 18 goals. But the loss of Ryan Callahan is huge for an offense that has the tendency to disappear at times.
Defensemen: One nice asset the Rangers have on the blue line is Dan Girardi, who never found a puck he wouldn't dive in front of. The human shield led the league in blocked shots this year, which comes as little surprise. But there's little offensive production from this group, with Girardi leading the way with 31 points. It's no secret why he and Marc Staal (seven goals) clock the most time on the back end for the Blueshirts. For the Capitals, this is the unit that has taken a good load of the blame for recent playoff flameouts, so people are anxious to see if things really have gotten better. The regular-season stats certainly reflect that as the Caps were fourth in the league in goals allowed. And we've seen what Mike Green is capable of with the puck, perhaps one of the most offensively gifted defensemen in hockey. They'll need him back from his concussion to join John Carlson. Coach Bruce Boudreau says he expects Green to go in Game 1.
Goalies: If you could lump three into one, I'm taking the Capitals. They have three very promising goalies in Semyon Varlamov, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, but the big question remains: who's their main guy? It's like the old saying in football; if you have two (or in this case three) starting quarterbacks, you really have none. I'm not sure that's entirely the case here, all goalies have shown to be very capable, so the lack of a starter is a bit more of an indication of their quality. But, as you know, only one goalie can play at a time -- shocking news, I know. And at this point, none is as good as Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist. He's in the Vezina discussion after leading the league with 11 shutouts and being perhaps the biggest reason New York has made it this far. The concerns are the fact that Lundqvist was in goal for the last 26 games of the season and that his primary backup, Marty Biron, is still injured. It's unclear if he'll be able to play if needed.
Special teams: Despite the offensive talent they have shown in the past, Washington wasn't fantastic on the power play this season, coming in at 16th in the league with a 17.5 percent conversion rate. The Rangers check in a bit lower on the totem pole, posting the league's 18th best mark at 16.9 percent. You won't find a player in this series appearing in the top 30 for power-play goals this year (Callahan was tied for 18th with 10). Neither team is spectacular, so let's call it a wash. Defensively -- and this might surprise some considering past years -- the Caps were the league's second-most efficient team at killing penalties (85.6 percent). The Rangers are no slouches either, killing 83.7 percent of penalties. It's worth noting the Capitals took less penalties this season than the Rangers, too.
Edge: Slightly to the Capitals
-- Brian Stubits
Photo: Getty Images