By Jeff Nations
Here we go again.
It's fitting that the red-hot Washington Capitals should once more run into the New York Rangers in the NHL playoffs, and the first round works just fine. After all, it was just a year ago that these same two teams met up in a thrilling seven-game series -- second round, true -- and if you're a Caps fan this almost feels like a bit of unfinished business. The Rangers bumped off Washington last year with a 2-1 victory in Game 7, with that score a microcosm of a tightly-contested series where no game except the opener was settled by more than one goal.
New York won that Game 7 matchup at home, but the No. 3 seed Capitals would host a series finale against the No. 6 Rangers should it go that far this time around.
It wouldn't be surprising to see this series play out just that way once more. Both teams are absolutely rolling. Consider the Capitals -- as late as mid-March, Washington appeared to be heading nowhere. A trip to scenic Winnipeg seemed to cure whatever ailed them -- Washington swept back-to-back matchups with the Jets and have been dominating ever since. They finished out the regular season with a 15-2-2 mark over the final 19 games to win the Southeast Division and lock up that No. 3 seed.
All signs are encouraging -- franchise icon Alex Ovechkin is once more playing inspired hockey, as evidenced by his league-leading 32 goals, 19 coming in that dominating season-ending run. Defenseman Mike Green is a key factor all over the ice, especially the power play where the Caps are the league's deadliest at 26.8 percent this season.
Braden Holtby, who's shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs before, is coming off a rock-solid regular season in goal and gives the Capitals perhaps their most reliable net minder since the heyday of Olaf Kolzig.
Yes, the Caps are dinged up just like any other NHL team -- Brooks Laitch may not be ready until the second round due to a lingering groin injury, and fellow forward Joel Ward is also dealing with a knee injury. Still, the Caps shouldn't lack firepower with the likes of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson cementing the top line.
Karl Azner and John Carlson form the bedrock of two solid defensive line shifts that give Holtby plenty of protection.
Nothing here is new, really. All these elements have been in place at least since last year, albeit not playing at this level. When things go south, as they so often seem to in Washington, the coach is quick to absorb the blame. Conversely, first-time NHL coach Adam Oates deserves more than the traditional heaping of credit for Washington's success this season. The Caps truly looked dead in the water before that Winnipeg double-dip, but Oates' moves -- particularly in shifting Ovechkin around at times -- have ultimately made the Capitals a stronger, more balanced team. That the rookie coach kept the confidence of his team even during those early struggles is a testament to his motivational as well as coaching abilities.
Will it all be enough with the puck is dropped on Thursday night for Game 1 against the Rangers? After all, New York is plenty hot in its own right, posting a 10-3-1 record in April to move up to sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. Henrik Lundquist is more than equal in goal to Holtby, the Rangers are solid on defense, and have enough offense to get the job done even without the injured Mark Staal.
The Rangers are a tough, blue-collar club that reflects the attitude of coach John Tortorella. They'll need that resiliency against a Washington squad capable of lighting up the scoreboard in a hurry.
It should be another great series, for certain. But this time, it should be the Capitals moving on to the next round. Washington matches up well in all facets, and the reemergence of Ovechkin as the league's most dangerous scoring threat is a weapon the Rangers simply shouldn't be able to counter. Still, it's a short series and history shows those ultimately haven't been kind to the Caps. This just might, finally, be a break from that sort of history and the start of a new chapter of winning in Washington.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>