Ovechkin/By S. Bradley

When you’ve scored 50 goals or more three straight years (including a career-high 65 in 2007-08) and then you have a “down year” that produces 32 goals and 85 points, you might just be holding back waiting for the perfect time to pounce.

I think Alexander Ovechkin has been doing just that, waiting in the woods for the perfect time to start firing on all cylinders.

The Washington Capitals made the commitment to be more playoff-ready by honing their defensive game. I think that will pay off with a run to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. And Ovechkin is now going to unleash his multitude of offensive talents to go along with his team’s more responsible approach.

The Caps got stingy enough to rank fourth in the league in goals against per game, despite leaning on three goaltenders — the oldest of which is just 23. Even if you consider Mike Green, who’s more of an “offenseman” than a defenseman, an annual Norris Trophy candidate, the Capitals didn’t miss him on their back end with the emergence of youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner a top-pair material.

Assuming the Caps don’t get complacent with Green back from his injury to start the playoffs, they should continue to get the job done in that department. Offensively, Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and a host of other forwards are too much for anyone else in the East to contain. Jason Arnott has joined Mike Knuble to not just battle in front and chip in with some scoring but also provide a wise veteran voice in the locker room.

The Caps couldn’t have gotten an easier first-round match-up then the banged-up, offensively challenged New York Rangers. Without Ryan Callahan, the Rangers not only lose production but heart. The Caps should end their series early and have time to rest and heal up before venturing into the second round, which could mean they’ll have the most gas in the tank by the time the third round rolls around.

My preseason pick to win the East was Pittsburgh, but there’s no way the Penguins can win three rounds without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Caps with a new-look Ovechkin, who’s about ready to break out onto a Conn Smythe-worthy run, are my new pick.

Here are my Eastern Conference first-round picks:

No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 New York Rangers
Pick: Capitals in 5

Henrik Lundqvist will not be able to steal more than one game from the Caps, who should be able to wear out the Rangers’ top D pair of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. After their top two, the Rangers are inexperienced and defensively suspect on their back end.

No. 2 Philadelphia vs. No. 7 Buffalo
Pick: Flyers in 6

I’m not even going to doubt the Flyers’ goaltending. We know that this deep, talented team can get four rounds deep regardless of which puck-stopper head coach Peter Laviolette tabs. Even without Chris Pronger, I don’t suspect a Sabres team that’s built around players who are seemingly always banged-up — Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, Jochen Hecht, and now Andrej Sekera — would be much of a match. Pronger’s imminent return makes the Flyers a prohibitive favorite. Ryan Miller, who also might be battling injury, could steal a game or two though.

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Montreal
Pick to be revealed later tonight.

No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay
Pick: Pittsburgh in 7

The Penguins should have enough experience and physicality on their back end, led by Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek, to slow down the Lightning’s potent top six up front. I give Marc-Andre Fleury the goaltending edge over Dwayne Roloson based on the way the Pens’ puck-stopper played over the second half of the season. The Lightning will gain valuable experience for the future but the chances of a Crosby return for this season will live on another couple weeks as Pittsburgh advances.