And so it begins.
Just about everything there is to be said about this matchup has been said over the past five days. The Caps need strong goaltending, the Rangers need to keep pace with the caps' offense, the Caps need to punish on the power play, the Rangers need to keep the puck out of the Caps' stars' hands.
The laundry list of "do's" and "don'ts" is pages long, but at the end of it all, the team that simply comes out the hardest will take home a Game One victory. Setting the tone of the game in each period is just as important as the goals that are scored in that period.
The team that sets the tone each period and forces the opposition to play their game is likely going to win this game and series.
The Capitals need to come out and make the Rangers play the Caps' game, a fast, skill-based offensive system that exposes defenders who can't cover the Caps' stars. The Rangers offense is balanced, but it's not nearly as explosive as the Capitals.
If the Capitals can make the Rangers spend most of the game playing from behind, then the Rangers will never have a chance to contain the Capitals stars because they'll be too busy trying to even up the score.
With regards to Jose Theodore, when the Capitals offense is clicking, Theodore is clicking. When the Capitals offense is stymied, then Theodore often falls victim to lazy defensive plays, leaving him wide open. The stronger the Caps play, the stronger Theodore plays.
Given the potency of the Capitals offense, the Rangers can't afford to get into a shootout with Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin. So they'll likely come out looking to frustrate the Capitals stars and throw them off of the Caps offensive system.
Think back to the Colorado Avalanche loss in February. The Avalanche stuffed the neutral zone with defenders, making it hard for the Caps to move in to the offensive zone. Eventually the Capitals got so frustrated they resorted to end-to-end passes that were often intercepted and turned into odd-man rushes.
If the Rangers can slow down the pace of play, then goalie Henrik Lundqvist is going to have a much easier time dealing with the Capitals offense as he'll likely see less quality shots on goal against him.
Of course another intangible factor is the stress level for each team. The Rangers come into this series having almost missed the playoffs. Analysts are already writing them off as first-round exits and I doubt Ranger fans will be crying many tears if that does happen.
But for the Capitals, they are opening the playoffs in front of a sellout crowd that won't settle for a first-round exit. They won't even settle for the fact that they have back-to-back division titles. This Caps team is expected to do great things, and analysts are calling for them to go as far as the Stanley Cup.
For the Caps, this opening night is a statement about whether or not the fans' and analysts' good faith is warranted. For the Rangers, hey, they're just happy to be here, and they'll happily send the Caps out if given the chance.
The playoffs are a marathon and a sprint all at the same time. And what's true in racing, is also true in hockey. How you start each race, is just as important as how you finish it.
It's imperative that the Caps hit their stride early and not stumble off the blocks.
LET'S GO CAPS