NHL on NBC: Rangers, Caps start Round III of their playoff rivalry

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For the third time in four years, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers will face each other in the playoffs. Washington won the first two series, but things could turn out very differently in 2012.

The Rangers team that Washington will face in Game 1 on Saturday (3:00 pm ET, NBC) is not the same as the one the Capitals dispatched in five games last year, but then again, Washington has changed too.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference is that this time around, it’s the New York Rangers that dominated in the regular season while the Capitals had to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs.

New York’s success has been due in large part to the fact that Marian Gaborik and blueliner Michael Del Zotto both bounced back from their rough 2010-11 campaigns. The off-season signing of Brad Richards also proved to be a big boost. Combine that with their more versatile forwards like Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky, plus their all-star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and the Rangers look like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender on paper.

Still, the New York Rangers struggled against the Ottawa Senators in the first round and nearly became the latest top seed to be eliminated from the playoffs. Although they can take a lot of positives out of their opening round, not everyone has come together yet for the Rangers in the way that they will likely need going forward.

Of course the same can be said for the Washington Capitals – only in their case, you could have said that at basically any point this season. For all the star power they have, it was a young goaltender with almost no NHL experience that led Washington through the first round.

The Capitals did help him out defensively, but netminder Braden Holtby was the story of Washington’s victory over the Boston Bruins. Unless Washington’s best paid players start to shine a little brighter, he’ll need to be story again for them to beat the Rangers.

Game 1 Notes:

— Washington allowed a staggering 35.4 shots on goal per game in the first round. Only the Phoenix Coyotes allowed a heavier barrage.
— Washington ranked second in the league with a 91.3 penalty killing percentage in the first round.
— Of the three teams that won at least 50 games in the regular season, only the New York Rangers remain.
— The Rangers and Capitals ranked first and second respectively in blocked shots during the first round of the playoffs.