Wednesday April 15th, 2009

Regular season series: Washington won 3-0-1

Nov. 8: Rangers 1 at Capitals 3 Dec. 23: at Rangers 4, Capitals 5 (OT) Jan. 3: Rangers 1 at Capitals 2 Feb. 11: at Rangers 5, Capitals 4 (SO)

The Skinny: This sets up to be a battle of polar opposites. The explosive Caps come in with the second-best offense in the East, averaging nearly a goal per game more than New York's ham-fisted attackers. That disparity is vividly apparent on the power play, where Washington was operating at a scorching 33 percent over its final 33 games. Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green each rank among the top seven marksmen with the extra man. The first Ranger on the list, Chris Drury, was buried ignominiously in 95th.

The Rangers on the other hand were built from the net out, and it's there that they have their biggest advantage. Henrik Lundqvist has proven himself capable of carrying the team with little offensive support. Working behind an underrated blueline -- the Rangers are worth watching just to see how far Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have progressed -- he led his team to the sixth best goals-against mark in the league.

Washington's defenders haven't always been so attentive to the needs of Jose Theodore. He's had his own battles with inconsistency, but he's done in more often by the risky puck decisions of his teammates than a blunder of his own. As long as they don't make life too difficult for him, Theodore can succeed as a caretaker.

Another key factor is home ice. The Rangers couldn't buy a road win down the stretch and have won just once at the Verizon Center since 2004. The boisterous crowds have turned the Phone Booth into one of the league's toughest rinks to visit. Look for that support to help the Caps to their first series win since 1998.

Spotlight's On: Chris Drury. The apologists are quick to excuse Drury's middling numbers (22-34-56) by saying he was sliced his $7 million worth of cake to be the Rangers' go-to guy in the playoffs. Last year, that bought the Blueshirts exactly three goals and six points in 10 games -- not exactly a strong return on investment. Drury comes into the series with a built-in explanation (he's missed action with a "lower body" injury), but not an excuse. It's time for him to prove he's more than just a guy with a few decent press clippings from The Buffalo News.

X-Factor for Rangers: Sean Avery. After fitting about as well in Dallas as 50 Cent on a bill with Fall Out Boy, the King of Trash Talk was forced to spend half the season in league-enforced limbo. Repentant but unreformed, Avery returned to the team that he never should have left last summer and gave the Rangers the hint of menace they sorely lacked. He'll rile up the Caps with his old tricks, but the Rangers need him to focus on slap shots as well as cheap shots.

X-Factor for Capitals: Tom Poti. The veteran defender spent the last three games on the sidelines to rest a nagging groin injury. He skated with the team on Tuesday, but said afterward that he's not guaranteed to be ready for the opener. Poti is Washington's shutdown defender on the penalty kill and chips in on the second power play unit. That's a big hole to fill if he's not dressed.

The Pick: Capitals in five.

MORE BREAKDOWNS:

Hurricanes vs. Devils

Flyers vs. Penguins

Canadiens vs. Bruins

Ducks vs. Sharks

Blue Jackets vs. Red Wings

Flames vs. Blackhawks

Blues vs. Canucks

SI.com EXPERT PICKS: Round by round brackets

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