Caps-Rangers series yet to cross from tough to dirty

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NEW YORK — In the first round of the playoffs, the Washington Capitals dealt with what they called the Boston Bruins head-hunting Nicklas Backstrom, a cross-checking suspension and plenty of post-whistle extracurriculars.

The New York Rangers dealt with a suspension to Carl Hagelin and a sucker-punching incident involving Matt Carkner and Brian Boyle during their first-round series against the Ottawa Senators.

Through the first four games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Caps and Rangers haven’t been involved in that kind of stuff, but that doesn’t take away from the intensity of the series.

“I don’t think you need it. I think that the right level of it can help you maybe play a little bit better or help maybe get the other team off their game a little bit,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I don’t think it’s something that’s necessary. I think that just the fact that both teams are vying for the same thing is enough to create the hate that you need to get you as into it as the guys are.”

New York coach John Tortorella called it a “straight-ahead, hard series,” even harder than seven games against Ottawa. Maybe there isn’t the same kind of “hate,” and maybe that’s a good thing.

“We dislike each other,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We both play the same type of hockey. And when games are close and tight like that, you find those scrappy games. I think for the most part things have been clean because both teams know what’s at stake here.”

Three of the first four games in the series were decided by one goal, and the teams hadn’t combined for more than five goals. Contrast that with the Philadelphia Flyers beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in a first-round series where suspensions, ejections and post-whistle jousting was the norm.

Alzner said it seemed like the Penguins couldn’t concentrate because of all that. The Caps have been careful to avoid that.

“You look at a couple other series, and it seems like guys get caught up in that ‘We’ve got to beat the crap out of you and then return the favor,’ ” defenseman Jeff Schultz said. “It’s more along the lines of just going out and playing and playing physical. Stuff like that just happens in the game, and you just kind of go about it as is and not try and magnify it too much, because you get caught up in that and everybody’s worried about that instead of playing.”

Early and often

Going into Monday night’s Game 5, the Caps were 6-1 in these playoffs when scoring first and 0-4 when giving up the first goal. It’s an extension of a regular-season trend that included them being 35-5-3 when scoring the first goal.

“It’s good energy. I think it lifts the team a little bit and gives them some momentum. Everyone gets fired up,” right wing Joel Ward said. “I don’t know why the record is like that, but it’s a key for us to get off to a good start, and that’s what we always take pride in.”

The Capitals scoring first also affords them more opportunity to play coach Dale Hunter’s tight-checking system.

Hendricks brushes off hit

Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi laid out Hendricks in the second period of Game 4, a hit that didn’t draw nearly as much attention as Alex Ovechkin’s shot at Girardi. But that seems OK with Hendricks, who didn’t want to really address the play Monday.

Girardi did not get a penalty for the hit, which came perhaps half a second after Hendricks dished the puck up ice.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “I think you guys make more of it than we do.”

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