GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Forget about pats on the backs and sighs of relief. The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals have no time to revel in their first-round playoff victories before they meet up again.
The seventh-seeded Capitals knocked out the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Boston on Wednesday in Game 7 and then watched the top-seeded Rangers outlast the Ottawa Senators a night later in that decisive game to avoid elimination.
Now the former division rivals are matched up in the Eastern Conference semifinals, their third post-season meeting in four years. The Capitals won the previous two over the Rangers and coach John Tortorella, but New York insists those series have no bearing on this one.
“Irrelevant,” Tortorella said after practice Friday on the eve of Saturday’s matinee opener at Madison Square Garden. “This is another series. We found a way to get through a tough series against Ottawa, Washington is the next one. It doesn’t matter what has happened before.”
Tortorella, a Stanley Cup-winning coach in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, just earned his first post-season series win with the Rangers since he took over during the 2008-09 season. The Capitals knocked out New York in 2009 by rallying from a 3-1 series hole, and did it again last year in five games.
“It’s a different team every year,” Rangers forward Brian Boyle said. “What happened in the past is over and done with. We’re looking at them now and who they have, their personnel and how we need to play against them and how we need to play as a group.”
Boyle missed the final two games of the Ottawa series after sustaining the first concussion of his career when he was hit by Chris Neil in Game 5. Boyle skated Friday for the first time since being hurt, but didn’t know if he would be able to play Saturday.
Brandon Dubinsky, injured in the third period of Game 7, didn’t practice Friday. If Boyle is cleared to play, and Dubinsky can’t go, the two players could be swapped in the lineup.
With only one day off between the first round and the second, the Rangers moved quickly to put the Senators behind them and begin focusing on the Capitals. Washington, 4-2 in playoff series against New York, split four regular-season games with the Rangers.
“We can’t relax,” Rangers top-line forward Brad Richards said. “We’re not changing anything. We’ve got to realize that that game is over and now this is the most important one of the year. We’ve got to bring it up right away. We can’t finish Game 1 still worrying about how great we were to beat Ottawa.
“That’s got to be out of there. Actually, we’re done with that now.”
One difference in this meeting is that it’s the Rangers who are on top of the conference, and the Capitals who had to fight to get into the playoffs.
Washington still has powerful offensive weapons Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, but a newfound defensive mindset in front of 22-year-old goalie Braden Holtby gives the Capitals a much different look under new coach Dale Hunter.
“We know how they play and they know how we play,” Ovechkin said. “Probably four years in a row or three years in a row we play against them in the playoffs, and we had that kind of success. I think we’ve got that kind of mentality in our hands.”
The Rangers dealt with the pressure of facing elimination twice this week, and overcame it to win Game 6 in Ottawa on Monday and Game 7 at home on Thursday. The tricky part now is to not let the relief of survival take away the feeling of desperation as they begin the series with the Capitals.
The Capitals are relishing the role of underdog that already carried them past the Bruins.
“We don’t need that pressure,” Backstrom said.
Any kind of letdown by New York in either of the first two home games could cede the advantage the Rangers bring in as the No. 1 seed.
“We’ll have the desperation,” Tortorella said. “It’s one round. There is still a lot of hockey to be played here. We’ll take it day by day as we always do.”
That is the same plan being followed by Holtby, who played a total of 21 games in the NHL the past two regular seasons. While he is limited in experience, he is hardly short on confidence as he played every minute goal for the Capitals in the series against Boston.
He allowed only 15 goals and put up an impressive .940 save percentage in the opening round. Holtby also has been exposed to Madison Square Garden, having made 35 saves in Washington’s season-ending 4-1 victory at New York that prevented the Rangers from finishing with the top record in the NHL.
With only one appearance there, Holtby has already found a comfort level.
“It’s not exactly your typical building. It was good to play in it,” he said. “More (comfortable) than I was expecting. Especially darker buildings, usually it impacts the goalies more than usual. It wasn’t that bad.
“It’s just a different colour in there. It’s almost a yellow. That’s mainly the thing. It’s still a sheet of ice the same size as everyone else.”
Holtby also knows the goalie spotlight will be focused across the ice from him on New York’s Henrik Lundqvist, who not only is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie, but for the Hart—given to the league’s most valuable player.
Lundqvist got that news Friday morning while still basking in the glow of his 26-save performance in the series-clinching win over Ottawa.
“It’s been a fun year,” said Lundqvist, who had 39 wins and a 1.97 goals-against average in 62 regular-season games. “It’s been a year where the team has been playing really well in front of me and helping me in so many different ways—blocking shots or being in the lane all the time.
“I also feel that I pushed myself this year to play better and improve as a goalie. I’m really happy and honoured and proud. I felt like I was more determined this year, more prepared for this year. It was a little different. I played a little less and I had more energy to push myself in practice and work on details.”
It has shown even into the playoffs. Lundqvist gave up 12 goals in seven games to Ottawa, a 1.70 GAA with a .945 save percentage.
“Everybody knows he’s a top goalie in the league, and we just have to do the same thing what we do last series and make some traffic,” Ovechkin said. “If he going to see the puck he going to save it, it’s no doubt. But if it’s going to be a good shot and if it’s going to be one guy in front of the net, it’s going to be a hard time.”
A goalie hasn’t won the Hart Trophy since Jose Theodore, then of Montreal, captured it in 2002. Lundqvist is more likely to earn the Vezina for the first time than edge out favourite Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh for the Hart.
Either way, Tortorella believes Lundqvist deserves the recognition he is getting.
“I think it’s fantastic,” the coach said. “You don’t see that often, a goaltender in that position. I’m not too interested in talking too much about the awards, but for this guy here and what he’s done for the hockey club, he belongs there.”