Commentary

First-round breakdown: Caps-Rangers

Updated: April 14, 2009, 7:04 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

It must be true that opposites attract because the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers found each other in the first round of the playoffs. It's Alex Ovechkin and the Caps' high-powered offense versus Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers' air-tight defense.

The numbers don't lie. The run-and-gun Caps are third in the NHL in goals per game, but a leaky 19th in goals against. The squeeze-your-stick-tight Rangers are 28th in offense, but a stingy sixth in goals against.

Washington won the season series, taking three out of four, although New York took the last encounter, 5-4 in overtime on Feb. 11.

Ovechkin, meanwhile, is licking his lips. He craves the spotlight and now he gets to play on Broadway.

1. Trying to stop Ovechkin. New York actually did a decent job in its season series against Washington, holding the Russian superstar to five points (3-2) in four games. New York would certainly take that in a playoff series. In fact, take away Ovechkin's three-point performance Dec. 23, and the Rangers limited him to one goal and an assist in the three other games. If the Rangers can keep Ovechkin human -- in other words, just one point a game -- it helps level the playing field.

2. Jose Theodore. You hate to pin so much on one guy, but the Rangers' chances really depend on which Jose Theodore shows up in net. Because we know this: Rangers star goalie Henrik Lundqvist will do his thing and give New York its best possible chance. Theodore did not crack the top 30 among NHL goalies in goal-against average or save percentage. Mind you, some of that has to do with his team's run-and-gun style. On the flip side, Theodore has won some first-round playoff series in impressive style, with Montreal in 2002 and 2004 and Colorado last season. Still, if Theodore struggles, we don't think Caps coach Bruce Boudreau will wait that long in this series to put in rookie Simeon Varlamov.

3. New York's offense. As we stated above, this team just can't score. Hard to believe the Rangers scored fewer goals than the likes of Phoenix and Tampa Bay this season with all the money both have spent up front. Coach John Tortorella has been harping about puck possession with his team, and that's going to be more key than ever against an opposition that is deadly when it has the little black disc.

4. Playoff experience. The young core of this Caps team has only last season's seven-game series on its playoff résumé. The Rangers have been in the playoffs every season since the lockout and twice advanced to the second round. Chris Drury and Scott Gomez enter their second postseason with the Rangers, but also carry over their experience from their previous teams. In this area, it's not even close; New York has more miles on the playoff odometer.

5. The new Rangers. GM Glen Sather shuffled the deck a bit at the trade deadline with decent results. With new parts Sean Avery, Nik Antropov and Derek Morris, the Rangers went 10-6-1 after March 4, not counting Sunday's season finale in Philadelphia, which was a totally meaningless game for New York. Oh, yeah & Avery. He drove Martin Brodeur nuts in last season's first round. Who will he pick on this time around?

• Washington's No. 2-ranked power play versus New York's No. 1-ranked penalty kill. Talk about a clash of the titans. The Caps send out Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich on their No. 1 power-play unit, and you wonder how they just don't score every time they're on the ice. But on the flip side, the Rangers, led by Lundqvist, have been dynamite in shutting down opposing power plays all season long. The Caps had the edge in the season series, going 4-for-15, a 27 percent clip that will win you many games.

• Washington: Brooks Laich wrapped up the regular season with 12 points (5-7) in his last eight games. On a Caps team loaded with big offensive stars, the 25-year-old Saskatchewan native is often overlooked, but he'll be an important part of any playoff success this team will have. Tom Poti is known as an offensive blueliner, but he was pointless in his last 15 regular-season games and was a minus-4.

• New York: Gritty forward Ryan Callahan finished up the regular season with seven points (3-4) in his last seven games. Nikolai Zherdev. The Rangers' creative winger was pointless in his last five games before Sunday's meaningless finale. New York needs this guy to produce in the playoffs to have a fighting chance.

• The Lundqvist/Theodore factor could single-handedly make this an interesting series, but in the end, we don't see the punchless Rangers providing the upset. The Caps may not be ready for a Cup championship this season, but they're not going down easily, either. Caps in seven.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.