Rangers playoff preview: Back on track to title expectations

Rick Nash skated with his team for the first time since injury. Credit: Getty Images
Rick Nash charges into the playoffs for the first time with his new team.
Credit: Getty Images

There are signs that spring is upon us. The days are longer, the weather is warmer and the Rangers and Capitals meet in a playoff series.

For the third time in the three years — and the fourth time in five years — the Rangers and Capitals will face off in the playoffs. The Eastern Conference quarterfinal series begins Thursday night at the Verizon Center in Washington.

“We wanted to keep on playing,” head coach John Tortorella said after the Rangers ended the regular season with a 4-0 win over the Devils Saturday afternoon at the Garden.

A preseason favorite to win the Stanley Cup, the Rangers spent much of the first 10 weeks of the season alternating wins and losses before authoring a strong April, in which they went 10-3-1 and led the NHL with a 3.6 goals per game average.

“We are where we need to be,” Dan Girardi said Saturday. “April was a good month for us. We played our style of hockey and won in different fashions.”

The strong April coincides with the trade-deadline acquisitions of Ryane Clowe in a trade with San Jose, Derick Brassard, John Moore and Derek Dorsett in a trade with Columbus and the free-agent signing of Mats Zuccarello.

“I’m really happy with the past month, five weeks,” Tortorella said. “I really like the team. I think we stabilized ourselves when we got a little bit of the middle of the lineup straightened away.”

It has also had the effect of jump-starting a slumping Brad Richards. Richards, who finished the season with 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points in 45 games, scored 16 points (six goals and 10 assists) in April.

“It’s been a work in progress,” Richards said Saturday. “It’s a good time to start feeling good.

“If it’s an 82-game schedule I probably don’t let some of the stuff get to me like I did. In the position I was in, it is tough to see your team battling in the seventh, eighth, ninth spot if you aren’t producing. I might have forced it a bit because of the short season. I got out of my game and my mind got in the way a little bit. Finally, something broke through. I started contributing and it just feels better.”

Tortorella created a line of Richards, Zuccarello and Rick Nash in the 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina on April 25, and the trio has fit together. Richards scored the game-tying goal against Carolina, and the line combined for two goals, three assists, five points and a plus-6 rating against the Devils.

“He has certainly found his game,” Tortorella said of Richards on Saturday. “Some of the goals he scored — it doesn’t matter with those type of goals — one was off a skate, one was off the backboard, it does not matter. It relaxes them a little bit.

“I thought that line, [when] we put it together the last game, I thought it ignited [Nash] in our last game. When he was with [Brassard] and Clowe — before Clowe go hurt — it just wasn’t working. Hopefully it will continue.”

Washington won two of the past three series, but the Rangers beat the Capitals in seven games last May to advance to the Eastern Conference final. Last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal is memorable for Marian Gaborik’s triple overtime game-winner in Game 3, Richards’ tying goal with 7.7 seconds left in the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime win in Game 5 and Dale Hunter’s bizarre usage of Alex Ovechkin.

Series breakdown …

FORWARDS: This looks to be as even as can be. Of Washington’s 146 goals, 124 were scored by forwards, led by Alex Ovechkin’s league-most 32. The Rangers finished 15th in the league with 126 goals. One hundred and eight were scored by forwards, led by Rick Nash’s team-high 21. The Blueshirts led the league in April with a 3.6 goals per game average, and John Tortorella has said the trade-deadline acquisitions of Ryane Clowe and Derick Brassard have provided the coach depth. Tortorella is hopeful Derek Dorsett — also acquired at the deadline — and Brian Boyle will be able to play at some point.

DEFENSE: This is a clear Blueshirt advantage. Tortorella has three defensive pairs he can use, compared to last spring when he was limited to five defensemen. The top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh will be paired against Ovechkin’s line. They will be followed by the second and third groupings of Michael Del Zotto-Anton Stralman and Steve Eminger-John Moore. There is a decided drop off from Washington’s first two pairings — Mike Green-Karl Alzner and John Carlson-John Erskine — and the third unit of Jack Hillen and Steve Olesky.

GOALTENDING: Following the regular-season ending 4-0 win over the Devils at the Garden Saturday afternoon, Henrik Lundqvist said three words that should give the Rangers a great deal of confidence heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs: “I feel good.” Lundqvist ended the year with a 24-16-3 record and two shutouts. Last year’s playoff darling, Braden Holtby finished his first full year as a starter 23-13-1 with a 2.58 GAA and .920 save percentage. Holtby went 1-2 with a 2.71 GAA and .923 save percentage in three games against the Rangers.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Tortorella did not want to talk about special teams following Saturday’s season-ending win over the Devils, but it is a certainty the coaching staff and players are working on the man-up and man-down units. The Rangers finished 23rd (15.7 percent) and 15th (81.1 percent), respectively, on the power play and penalty kill. Washington’s 26.8 percent power-play efficiency led the NHL.

PREDICTION: This appears to be the best of the eight first-round series. Logical arguments can be made for either team winning. Both teams enter the playoffs playing their best hockey of the season. The Rangers won 10-of-14 games in April while Washington rebounded from a slow start to the season to win 16 of their final 20 games and clinched the Southeast Division title in the process. Lundqvist will be the difference.

RANGERS IN SEVEN.

Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman for coverage throughout the postseason.


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