Wednesday, October 7, 2009

First-Round Rematch Looms for Caps, Rangers

Six months after their roller-coaster first-round playoff series, the Capitals and Rangers play the first meaningful game against each other, with Washington looking to remain unbeaten in regulation (2-0-1) against a New York team that rebounded from a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh to bounce Ottawa and New Jersey in succession.

Part of the reason the Rangers pushed the Capitals to seven games last spring, Henrik Lundqvist, has started off strong this year, posting a .924 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average despite facing 92 shots in just three games.

While Lundqvist remains the same, the Rangers underwent some big changes in the offseason by acquiring injury-prone Marian Gaborik as a free agent, and also has gotten contributions from some young defensemen in Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto, both who got a tally against the Devils Monday night in Newark.

Of course, the Capitals will be testing those youngsters, as Alexander Ovechkin is averaging three points per game so far this year, and Nicklas Backstrom has eight assists in just three contests.

The flip side for Washington was a rather poor performance by their defense against a speedy Flyer team, allowing 41 shots and six goals in an overtime loss. After getting yanked in the second period, the goalie who helped guide the Caps past the Blushirts, Semyon Varlamov, will likely sit with Jose Theodore - who was pulled after Game 1 of the first round - will get the start.

While John Erskine and Tom Poti struggled against the Flyers, Erskine may need to be in the lineup, at least in an enforcer role with former Cap Donald Brashear skating on the other side of the ice this time around. Tyler Sloan practiced as wing on Wednesday, and could be used both on defense and at forward if need be Thursday night.

One injury of note for the Rangers will be the absence of Sean Avery, who certainly had some good - and bad - moments against Washington last spring, and at times was one of New York's most effective players. Without their key agitator, New York hopes that Gaborik - who scored two goals in a preseason game against Washington last month - can carry an offense that struggled to score against the Caps last season.

The game also opens a stretch of four of five games at Verizon Center, but it certainly isn't a cakewalk. Four of the Caps' next five opponents were in the postseason last year, with only the Predators narrowly missing out in a tough Western Conference race.

After a disappointing loss in Philadelphia, the Caps return home for a much more favorable matchup and look to keep Ovechkin and Backstrom going while getting some more of their teammates on board.

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