As Washington Capitals players stepped off the ice Saturday night, one-by-one they learned their first-round playoff opponent. But it’s not like they needed to switch gears and think too much, because they’ll meet the New York Rangers in the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
“Yeah, we’re going to meet again,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “It is what it is. It doesn’t matter who you’re going to play against in the Stanley Cup [playoffs].”
That the Caps reeled off a 15-2-2 record down the stretch to clinch the Southeast Division title and No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference is impressive enough that they weren’t too worried about their opponent. When the Rangers were locked into the No. 6 seed, players didn’t have to imagine what the series, which likely begins Tuesday at Verizon Center, would be like.
“Obviously, we have a little bit of history with them,” right wing Eric Fehr said. “We’ve played them a number of times. It’s going to be a man’s series, no question. They’ve got a lot of big guys, and they like to play physical. It’s a good challenge for us.”
To a man, the Caps understand what the Rangers are all about: coach John Tortorella’s no-nonsense style that includes plenty of shot-blocking and low-scoring games.
“We definitely know who’s on their team and know the way they play,” defenseman John Erskine said. “I think it’s just going to be playoff hockey. I think playoff hockey, the games get rougher, tougher.”
Coach Adam Oates hopes his Caps are well-prepared to adapt to other teams’ styles in the playoffs, but the key is more about dictating the pace of play.
“I like playing the up-tempo game and trying to pressure the other club into making mistakes and make the mistakes in their end instead of our end,” general manager George McPhee said. “But I think our system really generates offense. It’s an exciting way to play.”
This series against the Rangers could be more entertaining than the Eastern semifinals a year ago, when then-Caps coach Dale Hunter wanted his team to go shot block for shot block with New York. It made for tight games, and the Rangers won in seven. The Caps had won the previous two series, but that defeat stung.
“Obviously we felt we were better for seven games last year,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
So there’s a little bit of payback on Caps players’ minds, and plenty of familiarity with the Rangers. But as Oates said Saturday night, playing every other Eastern Conference team at least three times this season provided plenty of familiarity.
“At this point, the way that we break down video, we’re pretty familiar with everybody,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Playing the Rangers is the same thing as playing Boston. We know how we need to play to beat them. It’s just more about execution.”