Stanley Cup playoffs: Capitals, Rangers won't be boring this year

USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Capitals and Rangers played seven games of tight-checking, defensive hockey. Not this time.

Last year's Capitals vs. Rangers series was a defensive hockey fan's dream -- and not exactly one for a whole lot of other fans.

The two teams played opportunistic hockey against each other, waiting for the other to make a mistake, resulting in low-scoring, low shot totals, blocked shots and a tight seven-game series in which all but one game were decided by a single goal. The two teams played a similar defensive style, and didn't offer a whole lot of offense in the series.

Thursday night in Washington -- exactly one year after a triple-overtime contest in Game 3 that was held in the same building between these two clubs -- the Capitals and Rangers proved to be willing to play a much more offensive -- and entertaining -- game this time around, combining for 66 shots, compared to just 32 in the Game 1 opener between the two at Madison Square Garden.

The Capitals out of the gate flying, recording the first nine shots on net and dominating the territorial battle, but Rangers' superstar netminder Henrik Lundqvist held the fort and kept the game scoreless. When New York was able to counter with some offense of their own, Carl Hagelin converted a wraparound goal to finish the first period with the Rangers in front 1-0 despite Washington's solid start.

The Rangers answered the Capitals in the early part of the second period, but Washington's goaltender Braden Holtby answered some of Lundqvist's terrific saves early on.

Hagelin had a prime chance to score a short-handed goal early in the second, taking a bad Nicklas Backstrom pass and breaking in alone on the netminder, but Holtby delivered a key stop for Washington.

When asked if a penalty kill was the big point of the game, Capitals coach Adam Oates instead pointed to that save.

"Big kill. I thought the breakaway that Holts stopped on Hagelin was the big one though," he told reporters afterwards.

Shortly after the stop, Alex Ovechkin was able to tie the game by burying a Mike Green shot that deflected off the back boards. New York got another chance to convert with the 5-on-3 chance -- but were held without a goal on the advantage thanks to some nifty saves by Holtby. Shortly after the Caps killed the penalties, Marcus Johansson scored the eventual game-winner by sneaking behind the Rangers' defensive pair and beating Lundqvist on a breakaway.

Johansson's goal and stretching out the defense wouldn't be something that would be encouraged under the defensive style employed last season under Dale Hunter, but clearly, both teams were shooting for more offensive pressure and forcing both goaltenders to make some good saves.

The more open style would seem to tilt the series Washington's way, as certainly the Capitals have a bit more pop offensively than the Rangers, but Lundqvist certainly can help be an equalizer over a seven-game series. With Rick Nash in blue this time around, certainly the Rangers can skate a bit better with the Caps if the series opens up more than it has in the past, when the opening up of the ice ushered in New York's demise.

One player who certainly elevated his game was Holtby, who despite facing 36 Rangers shots - many of them quality chances - delivered some key stops to help Washington take the series lead, including stopping Hagelin on a short-handed breakaway attempt early in the second to keep the Caps just a goal down.

While Caps netminders of the recent past -- Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth -- had faced a lesser amount of shots as the Capitals tried to pepper pucks past Lundqvist. This time around, Holtby was able to outplay Lundqvist as he faced some good New York chances.Despite the same 3-1 count for the home team that was the same as Game 1 last year, the game was much different, with both teams being kept off the board thanks to some terrific saves rather than limited chances.

"There's that five, 10 minute span there in the second period where [the Capitals] grabbed on to [the momentum] and ended up getting a couple goals off of it, and that's what the playoffs is about, momentum swings and handling it and trying to grab it back when you lose it and not trying to get hurt and tonight. It hurt us," New York's Ryan Callahan told reporters afterwards.

With both teams coming into the playoffs on hot streaks - and playing well offensively - it seems this year's matchup will have a lot more to offer hockey fans than last year's matchup.

"They have to come back and they will come back stronger," Washington's Martin Erat said. "We just have to expect it and raise our level for the next game."

And, both teams have raised the level of play in what could be one of the more entertaining first-round series -- a stark contrast to last season's series.

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