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Rangers Vs. Capitals: Five Keys To The Series

Five keys to the Rangers Second Round matchup with the Capitals.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

On the eve of the New York Rangers Second Round matchup with the Washington Capitals I thought it would be appropriate to drill into some deeper keys to the series. Here are five things the Rangers need to focus on the next few weeks.

1) Speed Kills - The Rangers have a very distinct advantage in this series, and it's their overall team speed. It's not just one or two players anymore, the Rangers offense sort of lives with the heartbeat of the team's ability to transition the puck quickly up the ice.

A lot of the Rangers offense -- especially during their most successful stretches this year -- have come when the Rangers used their speed to create neutral zone separation which turns into rushes the other way. I think it would be fair to characterize the Rangers as a "rush happy" team, and when the Penguins did dam up those streams through the neutral zone the Rangers found themselves a little more bogged down.

I do believe the Penguins -- even with their injuries -- were a faster team than Washington, but the Rangers need to be able to adjust to how they create their rushes, even if those home run passes aren't available. Speed can be effective in different ways, and using wheels to break out of the zone (and enter the offensive zone with possession) will keep the Capitals on their heels and either be effective or force the Capitals to leave the middle more open to compensate.

2) Team Defense - This was an important factor against the Penguins and it's going to be an important factor against the Capitals as well. The Capitals boast Alexander Ovechkin, which is the best pure offensive player in this series. He's a threat to score from literally anywhere on the ice and he cannot be ignored for even a moment.

In the past, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have drawn the assignments to defend him. I doubt that changes much, although Marc Staal might get to see a lot of him, too, on the road. Either way, it's not just about the actual defenseman, Alain Vigneault needs to make sure he has the right matchups on the ice at the right time. The Capitals have enough threats outside Ovechkin to make things hairy.

3) STAY OUT OF THE BOX/SCORE ON THE POWER PLAY - All caps because it's kind of important. They might not have really showed it in their victory over the Islanders -- although the Washington power play did come through with some massive goals -- but the Capitals boast a lethal power play.

I've been banging the "put someone (hopefully Jesper Fast) on Ovechkin at all times and don't leave him open for a minute on the man advantage" penalty kill strategy that never seems to get any traction for this exact reason. But you want to know the easiest way to keep the Capitals from doing damage on the power play? Don't take penalties.

The Rangers did a really good job staying disciplined in the First Round against the Penguins -- even when the Penguins were doing their damnedest to throw them off their game. That needs to continue, because the Capitals love to throw their weight around.

And when they do, and the Capitals find themselves in the box, the Rangers need to make sure they're making them pay. The Islanders killed themselves against the Capitals by not converting on the power play. That can't happen now.

The Rangers got better on the power play as the series moved along but New York allowed the Penguins to hang around in Game 1 (and lost Game 2) while posting back-to-back 1-for-7 scorelines with the man advantage. That gets overlooked because the Rangers won but it was a major part of the series being so close.

4) Stick To The Blueprint - The Capitals are a physical team. They actually might be an overly physical team. Against the Islanders they threw a few questionable hits, some really questionable hits and at least one really bad hit. It's part of their game to be physical, make it tough in the corners and try to make other teams pay for coming into the zone.

So be it. The Rangers are a faster team. The saying "you can't hit what you can't catch" fits well here. The Capitals are really good at hitting a lot of things, and they drove the Islanders nuts with it, but the Rangers need to stay disciplined and play their game.

5) Martin St. Louis Need To Be, Well, Martin St. Louis - Here's how I look at the Mats Zuccarello injury. In the First Round Zuccarello was a critical part of the Rangers offense and St. Louis was just about as invisible as a player can be. James Sheppard really can't be any worse than St. Louis was, right?

So if St. Louis can raise his game to at the very least provide the Zuccarello offense (he's not going to bring the same overall game), then Sheppard will be an upgrade over whatever it was St. Louis was doing in the First Round. The Rangers need MSL to step up, especially if he's going to be in the top six.

I'm not sure I love the idea of St. Louis going onto the first line but wherever he goes in the top six he's going to be forced into being a big part of the offense. Hopefully Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Carl Hagelin keep up their fantastic play to mitigate the loss of Zuccarello as well. It will be much easier if St. Louis gets hot, though.