3 Rangers keys for Game 1 against Capitals

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

After wildly successful 2023-24 regular season, the New York Rangers set their sights on trying to win their first Stanley Cup Championship in 30 years this postseason. And the quest begins with Game 1 of their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Washington Capitals on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

The Rangers are massive favorites in this best-of-7 series between Metropolitan Division rivals. And rightfully so.

The Blueshirts set franchise records for most wins (55) and points (114) in a season and won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team in the NHL for the fourth time. They have an extremely deep and talented lineup, and are healthy at the most important time of the season.

Washington clinched a playoff berth in their final game of the season and finished 23 points behind New York. The Capitals also have the worst goal differential (-37) of any team in the playoffs and struggle mightily to put the puck in the back of the net, even with the great Alex Ovechkin in the lineup.

Yet, the teams split their season series, each winning twice on home ice. And in a best-of-7 postseason series, upsets certainly do take place.

Related: Voice of Rangers believes they have ‘no holes’ heading into playoffs

3 keys for Rangers in Game 1 against Capitals

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

3. Rangers can’t let Capitals power play get going

The Rangers hold a decided edge in both special teams heading into this series, which is a huge advantage because an underdog team like the Capitals typically needs some facet of the game to go in their favor to have a chance at pulling off an upset.

Washington’s power play was a middling 18th in the NHL during the regular season (20.6 percent) and, on paper, should be handled by an excellent Rangers penalty kill that was No. 3 (84.5 percent). However, the Capitals were much better in the second half of the season on the power play, scoring 22 times on 65 opportunities (34 percent) from Feb. 24-April 4, until finishing the season 1-for-11.

Ovechkin scored 13 power-play goals, Dylan Strome had 22 power-play points and John Carlson is a poised veteran PP quarterback. Seven of T.J. Oshie’s 12 goals were scored on the power play this season. There’s a lot of experience on their top power-play unit.

Simply, the Rangers can’t let the Capitals get untracked with the man advantage or else this could level the playing field some in this series. That begins with taking Ovechkin and his left-circle one-timer out of the equation. Expect the Rangers to be very aggressive in their penalty kill, pressuring the Capitals through the neutral zone and not let them set up easily in the offensive zone.

2. Rangers pressure on Capitals defensemen is paramount

There’s a good chance the Capitals will be without two of their top defensemen in Game 1. Nick Jensen and Rasmus Sandin each have been sidelined with upper-body injuries, though each practiced — albeit in no-contact jerseys — Saturday.

That means Washington may have to go with a third pairing of Dylan McIlrath and Alex Alexeyev. They combined to play 42 NHL games this season. Alexeyev is a promising 24-year-old who hasn’t found his footing in the NHL. And McIlrath, the former first-round pick by the Rangers, is a career minor leaguer who’s physical and smart, but slow-footed, as well.

That pair may not play a lot, but when it does, the Rangers should swarm McIlrath and Alexeyev on the forecheck and capitalize on expected turnovers. And that relentless forecheck should continue against Washington’s top-four on defense, so that New York can wear down the better defenders.

Should Sandin and Jensen play, the Rangers must be looking to put a body on each as often as possible, too.

Related: 2 Rangers youngsters appear set to play important roles in Game 1 against Capitals

1. Playing game on their terms is most important for Rangers

As stated before, the Rangers are clearly the deeper and better team. Simply, the Blueshirts need to dictate how Game 1 is played. That means owning the neutral zone, pinning the Capitals in their own end of the ice, deploying a quick transition game and winning the special-teams battle.

The Rangers can’t get caught up in the emotion of playing in front of a rabid, sold-out crowd. Yes, they should feed off that emotion but it shouldn’t change how they play. Running around, leaving your defensive position trying to make a big hit or hero play is not smart hockey. The Rangers must stick to what they do best and not get sucked out of their game, either by emotion nor possible chippy (or worse) antics from Tom Wilson, McIlrath and others.

Also, the Blueshirts can’t get frustrated if it’s difficult initially to get the puck behind Washington goalie Charlie Lindgren, who was outstanding in three starts against New York this season and who almost singlehandedly willed the Capitals back into the playoffs this season.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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