Here are ten reasons why the eighth-seeded Rangers will upset the first-seeded Capitals in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
10) RETURN OF CHRIS DRURY
Much was made of Drury's dramatic, goal-scoring return to the lineup in last weekend's must-win against the Devils. But understand that Drury will not be counted upon to be a key part of the Rangers' offense in the playoffs. This actually benefits everyone. Coach John Tortorella can rely on Drury's locker-room presence (which will help a young team), his face-off winning skills, his top-notch penalty killing and his shot-blocking. And Drury can concentrate on doing those things without feeling the pressure to be an offensive leader, which seemed to overwhelm at times during the past few seasons.
BRYAN MCCABE, Defense
Islanders (1995-1998): 220 games, 18 G, 45 A, 63 PTS
Rangers (2010-2011): 19 games, 2 G,4 A, 6 PTS
John Tortorella, head coach of the New York Rangers stands on the bench against the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena. (March 30, 2011)
7) BALANCED SCORING
Unlike past seasons when the Rangers leaned heavily upon one or two top scoring lines, they had many offensive contributors this year. Brian Boyle had a career-best 21 goals. Brandon Dubinsky had 24. Marian Gaborik had 22 in 62 games. Rookie Derek Stepan chipped in 21. Artem Anisimov had 18. Even grinder Brandon Prust contributed 13 goals (five shorthanded). Besides the top guns, there's talent on the lower lines. Erik Christensen, Wojtek Wolski, Mats Zuccarello (if he plays) and Sean Avery can all put the puck in the net. And don't forget about veterans Vinny Prospal and Chris Drury, who missed significant time with injuries but could be dark-horse contributors.
6) THE ROOKIES
It's been a while since the Rangers had three rookies playing significant roles on a playoff team. In fact, no other NHL team has three rookies playing as many minutes as Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer do for the Rangers.
Stepan scored 21 goals this year. He brings needed playmaking and creativity to the Rangers' top six forwards. McDonagh and Sauer have become the Rangers' third and fourth defensemen, an extremely rare feat in the NHL. Perhaps most astounding is the fact that all three youngsters do not seemed overwhelmed. The postseason will be their baptism under fire; how each of them holds up could have a lot to say about the Rangers' playoff fate.
They say momentum is only valuable until the other team scores. But the Rangers are riding a couple of promising streaks as the playoffs begin. First, they've won six of their last seven games against teams with winning records. At the end of the season, they had no trouble getting up and outplaying stronger teams; it was the weaker teams that seemed to sap the Rangers' energy and will.
Second, there is the emotional lift the Ranges got when they stole a playoff spot on the last day of the season. After spending nearly all of the second half of the season fending off playoff challengers, the pressure wore down the Rangers in the final two weeks of the season. We could see a more relaxed team now that the pressure is completely off.
4) MARIAN GABORIK
Rangers fans have been waiting all year for the Gaborik of a year ago (42 goals) to return. But he scored just 22 times in the regular season and went goalless in his last nine.
The Slovakian sniper is the only Ranger who can match the talent of the Caps' best offensive players. What better time than the playoffs for him to break out?
3) SHOT BLOCKING & GRIT
More than any other Rangers team in recent memory, this year's version is a gritty, self-sacrificing bunch that has earned kudos for its hard-working, grinding mentality. That's a huge reason why they were the only team to go unbeaten when leading after two periods this season (28-0-0). Washington has the edge in talent, but if the Rangers can wear down the Caps with body blows and neutralize their offense by diving into shooting lanes, they'll give themselves a shot -- pun intended.
2) MARC STAAL & DAN GIRARDI
No Rangers duo will be more heavily relied upon than the Rangers' top defensive pair of Staal and Girardi. Staal, 24, made his first All-Star team this year and has grown into the shutdown defenseman the Rangers always believed he would be. He'll be in Alexander Ovechkin's face as much as possible -- the two have a highly competitive history of hard, clean hits on each other. Girardi, 26, led the NHL in blocked shots and was in the top 10 among hits by defensemen.
They will draw the impossible assignment of shutting down the Caps' top line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble. If that doesn't happen, it could be a short series.
1) HENRIK LUNDQVIST
Make no mistake about it, if the Rangers have no shot in this series with an A+ performance from Lundqvist. They almost got it from him in 2009, when the goaltender stole two games to help the Rangers take a 3-1 series lead. This time around, the defense around him should be better, and Lundqvist was outstanding down the stretch. If he continues to play at that level, the Rangers have a good chance to pull off the upset.