WASHINGTON – As a coach with his playoff face on, Bruce Boudreau naturally wants his Washington Capitals to disregard the fact that they beat the New York Rangers three out of four times this season.
In this case, it’s more than just coach speak.
All four games came before Feb. 23, when the Rangers fired Tom Renney and replaced him with John Tortorella. They also came before the March trade deadline, when New York added Nik Antropov, Derek Morris and Sean Avery.
So, as the teams prepare to meet Wednesday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Boudreau is uttering more than a cliche when he says: “It’s like we’re playing this team for the first time.”
“They made four significant changes – three players and a coach – and probably a fifth change is that they really believe now,” Boudreau said Tuesday.
“It’s not the system that’s changed, it’s the mentality. You can see a different hunger in their eyes. That may be strange to hear, but you can watch two tapes at the end of Tom’s run and John’s run now.
“That usually happens with a coaching change. I don’t know either man, how they coach, but reputation-wise it looks like John’s a little more fiery and gets ’em going.”
A little more fiery?
No-one will dispute that about Tortorella, whom some of the Capitals know well from his time with the division rival Tampa Bay Lightning.
Even so, the Rangers were essentially a .500 team under the new coach until winning their last three games – two against Philadelphia and one against Montreal – to claim the No. 7 seed in the East.
“Every game has meant something and we’ve enjoyed it,” Rangers defenceman Paul Mara said. “Getting three wins going into the playoffs, with that momentum, gave us confidence.
“All around our game is coming together and that’s what you want going into the first round.”
Despite the change in attitude under Tortorella, the Rangers are built to win the same way – led by their defence and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
One pivotal matchup to watch will be the Rangers’ penalty kill unit – No. 1 in the league at 87.8 per cent – go against goal-scoring king Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals’ power play – which barely missed being No. 1 at 25.2 per cent.
“They do a great job of blocking shots and have great goaltending,” Boudreau said. “Especially the first half of the season. When you know you have to win the game 2-1, you’d better be good on the penalty kill.
“They knew it and they did it.”
Ovechkin’s shadow for much of the game will be defenseman Marc Staal. They are two physical players who know each other well.
“We’ve had our run-ins in the past. I don’t know what it is,” Staal said. “I think it’s we’re always in the same areas of the ice, so when the puck comes, he hits hard and I don’t want to get knocked down, either.
“I think if you get physical with him, and also with guys like (Alexander) Semin and (Nicklas) Backstrom, kind of get them frustrated and off their game a little bit, as much as we can, we have to do it.
“Maybe getting it in the back of his mind that he’s going to get hit every time he shoots it or comes down the wing. That’s what we want.”
A newcomer to the Rangers-Capitals mix is Sean Avery, the well-known agitator who loves to get under an opponent’s skin, especially someone like Ovechkin.
“Just ignore him,” Ovechkin said. “He likes to talk.”
Of course, Ovechkin likes to talk as well. When the subject turned to Lundqvist, Ovechkin’s eyes lit up when asked if the Rangers’ goalie plays with oversized pads.
“Oh, yeah,” Ovechkin said.
If that’s so, maybe it’s Lundqvist who’s rattling the psyche of the Russian superstar. Are his pads really too big?
“It’s funny, I’ve heard that before,” Lundqvist said. “There’s no way you can cheat because they measure it all the time. Sometimes, it’s the way you stand. I’m pretty happy he said I have big equipment. I guess I look big.”
Notes: Rangers captain Chris Drury returned to practice after missing four days with an undisclosed injury. “It’s just day to day,” Drury said. “The last few days of rest were helpful. Today was a good day to be on the ice.” … Capitals forwards Donald Brashear (sprained knee) and Boyd Gordon (broken finger) are available for Wednesday’s game, while the status defenseman Tom Poti (strained groin) is less certain.