The Washington Capitals are once again the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the 2011 NHL Playoffs and they will look to vanquish their playoff demons from the past two years when they square off against the No. 8 seed New York Rangers. Game 1 will take place on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. on Versus and Comcast SportsNet, according to the 2011 NHL Playoffs Schedule.
In Part II of our preview, we'll take a look at the Capitals' improving, but banged-up defense (thanks to an injury to Dennis Wideman and the rusty return of Mike Green) vs. the Rangers' young, but stingy defensive corps.
"Defense" is not a word synonymous with the Capitals, but Washington's defense is vastly improved thanks to a healthy mix of youth and experience.
The Caps gave up only 2.33 goals per game, fourth-best in the NHL, down from last year's 2.77. The pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner is the team's youngest and brightest, having unmatched chemistry from several years of playing together. The veteran experience of Scott Hannan has helped them as well. Meanwhile, Jeff Schultz has struggled this season, going from a plus-50 to a plus-6.
The biggest problem with Washington's defense has been injuries. Green, Tom Poti and Wideman have all missed significant time with injuries. Poti hasn't played since mid-January because of a nagging groin injury. Wideman suffered a hematoma in his leg March 29 and is out for the first round. Green is planning to return from head injuries suffered February 6 and February 25, and will need to find his All-Star play quickly to give the Caps a chance.
The Rangers' defensive corps is incredibly young. Via Mike Vogel, 55 percent of the career games played by New York's unit have been by recently-acquired Bryan McCabe. Other than McCabe, none of the Rangers' defensemen are over the age of 27. The young group is led by Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, who are capable of blocking shots and shutting down their opponent's top line. Rookies Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh will enter their first postseason.
If New York wants any chance of winning this series, their defense will have to outplay both Washington's offense and defense.