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Rangers try to meet high expectations as they open series against Capitals

The Rangers are in the playoffs for the third straight season
The Rangers are in the playoffs for the third straight seasonReuters
The New York Rangers seized control of the Metropolitan Division in the opening weeks of the regular season and eventually emerged from a crowded field to claim the Presidents' Trophy.

The reward for the most successful regular season in team history raised expectations for the Rangers, who will begin their quest for a Stanley Cup on Sunday when they host the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series.

New York is in the playoffs for the third straight season following a rebuild from 2018-21, and it set team highs in wins (55) and points (114) during the 2023-24 campaign.

The Rangers, who have home-ice advantage throughout the postseason, waited until their final game to clinch the Presidents' Trophy, beating the Ottawa Senators 4-0 on Monday.

"I think we found something and we've done something that over 82 games worked for us and brought us success," New York center Mika Zibanejad said. "Obviously, a lot of hard work with it.

"For us to change that now, I don't think that's even up for question or discussion. We just have to keep going with the things that we've been doing well, the habits we've created, the identity of our team, what we've been creating all year."

Leading the Rangers is Artemi Panarin. The forward set career highs with 49 goals and 120 points, finishing three points shy of the single-season franchise record set by Jaromir Jagr in 2005-06.

Panarin will be hoping his regular-season performance carries over into the playoffs. He scored six goals and recorded 10 assists in the postseason two years ago, when New York fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games in the Eastern Conference finals.

However, during the 2023 playoffs, Panarin had just two assists. The Rangers were knocked out by the New Jersey Devils in seven games in the first round.

In Spencer Carbery's first season as coach, Washington secured a playoff berth after missing out on the postseason for the first time in nine years in 2023. The Capitals have not reached the second round since 2018, when they won the Stanley Cup Finals.

Despite a minus-37 goal differential, Washington outlasted the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins in a tight race for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Capitals won four of their final five games of the regular season.

"Overall, I mean, we found a way in," Carbery said. "That's probably the overriding theme of this group and our team - the resiliency and the ability for us to just grind and just find ways to win hockey games."

Dylan Strome led Washington with 67 points (27 goals, 40 assists) while Alex Ovechkin finished with 65 (31 goals, 34 assists), matching his lowest total in an 82-game season.

Washington's situation between the pipes seemed to improve as the season went on, with Charlie Lindgren emerging as the No. 1 goaltender over Darcy Kuemper.

Lindgren, the brother of New York defenseman Ryan Lindgren, went 25-16-7 in 50 games (48 starts) this season. He posted a 2.67 goals-against average to go along with a .911 save percentage.

The teams last met in the playoffs in 2015. New York prevailed 4-3 in a second-round series.

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