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Rangers-Caps, Second Round Preview -- Blueshirts in Six

Any team that beats the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins cannot be all bad, but, then again, the Washington Capitals are not all that good.

In a nutshell that explains why The Maven picks New York to oust them from the second round in six games. 

We're talking about a D.C. sextet which was touch-and-go just gaining a playoff berth with an alleged coach-killer-captain, Alex ("Where's My Ice Time?") Ovechkin, and a third-string goalie, Braden Holtby, doing imitations of Georges Vezina while wearing a Number 70 on his back.

But the Blueshirts are ready for the opener at The Garden on Saturday, chastened and sweetened by their seven-game struggle with the Ottawa Senators; almost as enthused as coach Dale Hunter's squad which surprised in a couple of key areas:

• WHO'S THAT GUY IN GOAL? Braden ("I'm From Lloydminster, Saskatchewan") Holtby was so far behind Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth on the Caps’ goalie depth chart that even Dany Sabourin threatened to move ahead of BH. But accidents will happen and they did to Vokoun and Neuvirth. Enter Holtby, whose performance in ousting Boston was reminiscent of 1971 when an unknown named Ken Dryden stepped between the pipes and knocked then Champs, Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins, right into the Charles River. In this latest Bop the Bruins passion play, Holtby out-played Tim Thomas. Memo to Rangers: BEWARE OF BRADEN!

• THE NON-OVECHKINS: Not surprisingly, The Great Eight will dominate the spotlight, but not necessarily the big goals. Joel Ward came out of nowhere to score the overtime biggie against Boston while ancient Mike Knuble screened – some would say jostled -- Thomas on the winner. Troy Brouwer has developed the credentials to take off as a key power forward and Jason Chimera already has a history of giving the Rangers fits. Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin all have established their offensive credentials.

• DID SOMEBODY SAY "DEFENSE?" The District of Columbia may house a Defense Department, but it wasn't supposed to have an Annex behind the Capitals' blue line. Yet, the Hunters allowed Boston only an average of two goals a game over the seven-game series and it wasn't only because of Holtby's magic. The revived Mike Green wound up a Plus-Five while John Carlson and Karl Alzner have infused useful youth in the back and sometimes up front. Don't ask me how, but ancient Roman Hamrlik emerged from the first round with three assists and a Plus-Five so he must be doing something right. 

• THE ONE-YEAR COACH: When Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau behind the Caps' bench, the Washington icon declared he signed on for only one year. Some sages predicted that this would cause his players to pay even less attention to Dale than they did to Bruce. Then, there was the matter of whether Ovechkin and Hunter were on the same page. Blah, blah, blah. Turns out that Hunter -- a much cooler, calmer, more collected guy than the one who mugged Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 playoffs -- is a pretty darn good leader. Is he better than John Tortorella? Nay, but we'll know more about Hunter The Mentor soon enough.

On the other side, New York has a heckuva lot going for it, starting with the Fast-Rising Rookies, Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin. Out of character in his post-series press conference, Torts allowed that he couldn't wait to continue coaching The Kid Lightning Twins because of their potential.

"I also like the way Step (Derek Stepan) has come along after a slow (playoff) start," opines the coach, "and Marc Staal is going to get better and better. He has not reached his peak as a player."

In beating Ottawa, the Rangers once again demonstrated that their defensemen know precisely when to jump into the offensive fray and bury the puck. It was no accident that Staal and then Dan Girardi lit the red lights in the clincher. And we know that Michael Del Zotto will be getting his share along with Ryan McDonagh

But the BIGGER bit of astonishment has been created by Anton Stralman. Think about it; the unassuming Swede, who previously played for Toronto and Columbus, was a walk-on at the Devils' camp last September, did not make the team and eventually was snared by Glen Sather

All of a sudden, the Rangers found themselves with a solid D-man with power-play skills -- no less than three power-play goals -- and all-round smarts. 

Marian Gaborik should bust out against Holtby and maybe even Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov

All the right buttons are there from the indefatigable captain Ryan Callahan to Brad Richards of whom Torts has said, "Richie pushes us to the next step."

How appropriate since the next step -- Round Two -- is here!

In case you didn't hear The Maven the first time: Rangers in six.

Let the good times roll -- with goals!


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