2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – First Round Series Preview
Eastern Conference - (8) New York Rangers vs. (1) Washington Capitals
The journey begins again for one of the NHL’s most tortured franchises. Yes, the Washington Capitals own the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but that’s meant precious little to a decidedly snake-bitten outfit that remembers all too well what happened 12 months ago at this time.
It was only a short year ago when Washington, as the top seed in the East, rolled to a 3-1 series advantage against the seemingly overmatched Montreal Canadiens. The Capitals, who hadn’t made the Stanley Cup Finals since 1998 but finally looked like they had the goods to make a deep playoff run, were overwhelming hockey’s proudest franchise with their open-ice skating ability and pronounced talent. As Washington returned from Montreal with a two-game bulge in hand, Game 5 in the District of Columbia was likely to put the finishing touches on a very short series.
That’s when the world turned upside-down once more for a franchise that has never sipped champagne from Lord Stanley’s oversized drinking container.
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Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak stood on his head in Game 5, thwarting the Caps at virtually every turn. The Habs didn’t bring much offense to the dance, but they walked out of the Verizon Center with a series-perpetuating win that forced the Caps to make a trip back to Montreal for Game 6. The trip north of the border proved to be more of a burden than an opportunity for the Capitals, who still couldn’t solve Halak in a loss that brought about a Game 7 back in the American nation’s capital. Suddenly, Washington was thrust into a must-win situation, and with Halak’s confidence soaring, the Caps slipped behind the eight-ball. They proceeded to play like it in Game 7, as Montreal outworked and outfoxed the team with the NHL’s best record. Les Habitants didn’t even require overtime, as they ushered Washington out of the playoffs before the postseason ever got off the ground. The Capitals, who have lost Game Sevens in overtime and have seen many other promising seasons turn into dead ends, suffered the latest and – quite possibly – the greatest collapse in their immensely disappointing, championship-free history.
Now, with another playoff season beginning, the top seed means little for Washington. The Capitals actually have to back it up and win four games against a New York Ranger squad that, with goalie Henrik Lundqvist in net, is capable of stealing this series. It’s not so much about the Xs and Os as it is about the Jimmies and Joes… Jimmies and Joes such as Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Brooks Laich. If these guys who wear the Capitals’ sweater can’t deliver a steady stream of strong performances, another 82-game season will be quickly forgotten in the haze of an early defeat against a No. 8 seed from a big city.
Losing is not an option for the Washington Capitals in the first two rounds of this playoff season. The New York Rangers, who barely snuck into the postseason, are rather incidental in this series. The story will be written by the No. 1 seed that typically plays like a lightweight when the playoff spotlight shines its brightest. For better or worse, Washington will tell the tale in this first-round hockey showdown.
By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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