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COA News 2024

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Rangers open the playoffs against a familiar foe in the rising Capitals

By VIN A. CHERWOO

The New York Rangers were the first team to clinch a playoff spot and finished with the NHL’s best record to earn the Presidents’ Trophy. The Washington Capitals were the last team to reach the postseason after winning their final game of the season.

Now the Metropolitan Division foes meet in the first round for their first Stanley Cup playoff game in nine years.

New York coach Peter Laviolette knows the Capitals because he spent three years in Washington before parting ways with the Rangers last summer. However, he played down the significance as the teams split their four meetings this season, with the home team winning each time and both teams scoring a total of nine goals.

“That goes both ways,” he said. “They also have insight into me and systems. … You have to go out on the ice and the team that can figure out their game and play it the best can have success.

Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

The Rangers, who are looking for their first title in 30 years, are tied with Colorado and Edmonton for the fourth-best odds to win the Stanley Cup, according to Bet MGM Sportsbook, and the Capitals – who finished with a score differential of minus 37 for the worst of any playoff team since 1991 – have the lowest.

“Everyone will say we have nothing to do here and the goal difference is blah, blah, blah,” Washington coach Spencer Carbery said. “I know this group won’t just be satisfied with being in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We want to put our best foot forward and show what we are capable of as a group.”

New York lost only once in a row until early January. After dropping eight of twelve later in the month, the Rangers won ten in a row and never looked back. The Rangers led the league in comeback wins (28) and were tied with playoff outsider Detroit for most third-period comebacks (14).

“A pretty resilient group,” defenseman Adam Fox said. “It has been a complete team effort. When we needed goaltending, we got it. We needed depth scores, and we got them. When we needed our top guys to step up. In fact, everyone participates.”

The Capitals, who have just four players left from the 2018 Stanley Cup-winning team, were sellers at the trade deadline. However, they received steady goaltending from Charlie Lindgren after he hired the starter, and they won four of the last five, beating Detroit for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Now the Capitals need only look back to last year for inspiration, when the Florida Panthers defeated the Presidents Trophy-winning Boston in the first round and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

“We all understand how to play,” Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin said. “We’re just going to take it one game at a time and see what happens.”

TO SCORE

The Rangers ranked seventh in scoring at 3.39 goals per game, led by Artemi Panarin’s MVP-caliber season with 49 goals and 71 assists. Chris Kreider (39 goals, 36 assists), Mika Zibanejad (26 goals, 46 assists), Vincent Trocheck (25 goals, 52 assists) and Fox (17 goals, 56 assists) gave the team five players with a top score of 70 points – tied with Tampa Bay for the most in the NHL.

Ovechkin finished with 31 goals – including 23 in his last 36 games – to move 41 points behind Wayne Gretzky (894) for the NHL career record. The Russian forward is in the playoffs for the 15th time in his career after a one-year hiatus when the Capitals missed last season. He ranks 15th in all-time playoff goals (72), one behind Joe Pavelski and Dino Ciccarelli and three behind Mario Lemieux.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Igor Shesterkin (36-17-2, 2.58 goals against average, 4 SOs) went through a rough patch in which he lost six of 12 starts midway through the season, but rebounded to go 10-4-0 with a 2 .34 GAA and three shutouts in his last 14 starts. Jonathan Quick (18-6-2, 2.62 GAA, 2 SOs) was a solid backup, and the 38-year-old was 9-2-0 with a 2.84 GAA over his last 11 starts.

Lindgren finished 25-16-7 with a 2.67 GAA and six shutouts while making a career-high 48 starts – reaching double figures for only the third time in eight seasons and nearly doubling his previous record set a year ago .

SPECIAL TEAMS

New York was third in the league on both the power play (26.4%) and penalty kill (84.5%) – only Carolina was better at both. The Rangers were 7 for 23 on the PP and 22 for 23 on the PK over their last eight games.

Washington ranked 18th in man advantage – finishing ahead of only the New York Islanders and Vegas among the playoff teams – and 19th in penalty kill (79%).

PLAYOFF HISTORY

The Rangers have won five of nine playoff games against the Capitals, including the last three: the 2015 second round, 2013 first round and 2012 second round. In 2015, the Rangers came back from a 3–1 series deficit to advance to their second straight conference finals. Four of the teams’ last five postseason meetings have gone to a Game 7.