As we mentioned this morning, the Rangers don't have much time to celebrate last night's Game 7 victory over the Senators: Their second-round series against Washington begins less than 24 hours from now. The series is a chance for the Rangers to exact some revenge on a Capitals team that's eliminated them in each of their previous two playoff appearances. But the Rangers find themselves in a very different scenario this time: They're no longer the underdog trying to topple one of the top seeds in the conference. Instead, they're the team with the target on its back — the No. 1 seed in the East and the only one of the conference's top-four seeds still standing.
These Rangers are a better team than the one we saw in the playoffs last year, but these aren't the same Capitals, either: Washington got off to an unspectacular start this season, fired Bruce Boudreau, and replaced him with Dale Hunter. They earned only a No. 7 seed in the playoffs after capturing four straight division titles. Having said that, they've taken a lot of flack in recent seasons for their postseason performance, and this week, they won a Game 7, on the road, against the defending champion Bruins. Hunter has demonstrated that he won't necessarily use Alex Ovechkin, the face of the franchise, if he doesn't feel the situation calls for it. (Ovechkin played just fifteen seconds over the final fourteen minutes of Game 4, and in the decisive Game 7, five Capitals forwards got more ice time than the Washington captain.) Which isn't to say that the Caps don't still have some dangerous offensive players, but they've also adopted a more defensive system under Hunter. And against the Bruins, it seemed to work.
Something else to consider: When the Rangers and Capitals met on the final day of the regular season, the Washington goaltender that day, Braden Holtby, was appearing in his seventh game of the season, and just the 21st of his career. But since then, he backstopped the Caps to a series win over Boston in which all seven games were decided by one goal. And so if there's an X factor in this series, it's Holtby, whose name has been mentioned in the same breath as Ken Dryden in recent days, but who still has just 28 total games of NHL experience under his belt, playoffs included. Compare the wild card Holtby with the netminder on the other end of the ice: Henrik Lundqvist is now a four-time Vezina finalist, as well as a 2012 Hart Trophy finalist. Most important, he performed pretty much as the Rangers hoped he would in the first round.
These teams split the season series in 2011–12, with the Caps winning that game on the final day of the season, when the Rangers had already secured the top seed in the East but could have clinched the Presidents' Trophy with a victory. (You may recall that Holtby got the win in the game, though, most likely, all you remember from that one is how Washington scored on its first two shots and had three by the end of the first period.) If you'd like to take a shot at predicting the Rangers' lineup for Game 1, know that Brian Boyle (who missed Games 6 and 7 of the conference quarterfinals with a concussion) practiced today, and Brandon Dubinsky (who appeared to suffer a lower-body injury in the third period last night) didn't. This much we know, though: If they're both healthy, Tortorella would be wise to find a way to keep rookie Chris Kreider in the lineup.
Otherwise, we pretty much know the deal with these Rangers: They'll need to take advantage of their power plays (though it's worth noting Washington's penalty kill was excellent against Boston), they'll need more production out of Marian Gaborik (who scored just one goal against Ottawa), and they'll want to make things as easy as possible on Lundqvist (which means blocking shots, avoiding getting pinned in their own zone, and doing what they can to cut down on traffic in front of the crease). Just as we did in the first round, we think the Rangers will win — in a long, frustrating, but ultimately satisfying series. Game 1 begins at 3 p.m. tomorrow.