When the Capitals and Rangers met in the playoffs last season their styles of play were near mirror images. For seven games they dueled as risk-averse teams with a priority on shot blocking and protecting one’s own zone at all costs.
This year’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup won’t feature twin systems and styles, though.
The Rangers remain the self-sacrificing, aggressive forechecking team that they’ve always been under Coach John Tortorella, even if they have a little more offensive firepower than in years past.
But Washington, under Coach Adam Oates, plays an aggressive, pressure-based style in all three zones that thrives off creating neutral-zone turnovers. The Capitals want to protect their own zone and limit quality chances against their goaltenders, but they’d rather do it by spending time in the offensive zone.
“I think if we take momentum this system helps us a lot,” Matt Hendricks said. “If we can put them on their heels and force them to play outside their comfort zone, force them to take chances when they don’t want to – because they’d be behind and have to try and score – our system can really benefit us.”
All but Game 1 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal series between the two teams was decided by one goal. While low-scoring, nail-biting games are a trademark of the Stanley Cup playoffs the Capitals believe they have a better opportunity to take true control of contests with this year’s system.
Simply knowing they have the ability to score goals when necessary, balanced by steady play in their own zone, is reassuring to players.
“I feel better. I was very confident in what we did last year but the games were so tight always, we never blew a game open,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Where as this year I think we can still play in those tight games but we can still blow games open. I feel very confident in the team now, the way we’ve been playing. I don’t think I’ve felt as good going into playoffs since I’ve been with Hershey. That’s a good sign, I think.”
The key, according to John Carlson, is maintaining the same willingness to grind out a win that the Capitals had last year under Dale Hunter while playing a more up-tempo game.
“It plays to our strengths a little bit,” Carlson said. “If we can take that commitment level that we had last year in that series into this one with our system and our skills, I think we’re a really good team.”
When the Capitals last faced New York in the regular season, back on March 24, they were in the beginning stages of the turnaround that would lead them to clinch the Southeast Division. So when this series opens on Thursday it will be interesting to see how a fully-evolved Washington fares against the Rangers.
In the same respect, the Capitals haven’t faced New York since it traded away Marian Gaborik for Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett (broken clavicle) and John Moore. The Rangers also acquired Ryane Clowe (undisclosed injury) from the San Jose Sharks. While it’s uncertain which of the injured players might be able to return in time for Game 1, Oates knows that the Rangers’ system hasn’t changed, even with the new faces.
“We haven’t seen them since they made the trades. We haven’t played them since then,” Oates said. “But in our opinion they’re not changing their style – the way [Tortorella] wants them to play.”
Even with the knowledge that not much has really changed about New York, the Capitals want to make sure that they don’t assume they know how to play. They want to treat it as almost a completely new challenge.
“We’re familiar with the coaching style, we’re familiar with the playing style,” Troy Brouwer said. “The personnel has changed quite a bit, so we have to consider that, absolutely, and we have to go in and play them like a team that we haven’t seen before.”