By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009
The Washington Capitals took seven of eight possible points from the New York Rangers during the regular season, posting a 3-0-1 record. But when Alex Ovechkin and his teammates host them starting Wednesday in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the revamped Rangers will have a distinctly different appearance, from both personnel and tactical standpoints.
Since the teams' last meeting -- the Rangers won, 5-4, in the shootout on Feb. 11 -- General Manager Glen Sather has switched coaches, firing mild-mannered Tom Renney on Feb. 24 and replacing him with firebrand John Tortorella, a former Jack Adams Award winner who guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004. Less than two weeks later, Sather had reshaped his roster, too, adding forwards Sean Avery and Nik Antropov and defenseman Derek Morris to an underachieving lineup anchored by three-time Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist.
"It's like you're preparing for a whole new team because we haven't seen this team under Tortorella, which has played very good," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Right off the bat, I think we're in for a tough series."
If the regular season was any indication, Boudreau could be right.
Only one of the contests was decided by more than a goal (a 3-1 Washington win on Nov. 8), and two required extra time. The teams were also involved in arguably the Capitals' most thrilling win of the season, a 5-4 overtime decision on Dec. 23 at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers had jumped out to a 4-0 lead and chased starting goaltender José Theodore from the net. But Theodore returned and the Capitals rallied for five straight goals -- two from Ovechkin -- and won in overtime on Shaone Morrisonn's first goal in 51 regular season games.
The Capitals took the next meeting, 2-1, on Jan. 3. But the Rangers claimed a 5-4 shootout victory on Feb. 11, a win that came in the middle of the 2-7-3 tailspin that led to Renney's dismissal.
Since Tortorella's arrival, the Rangers are 12-7-2. Avery, meantime, has given the Rangers some much-needed attitude, not to mention five goals and seven assists in 18 games. Antropov has chipped in with seven goals and six assists, while Morris has added ruggedness and experience along the blueline.
But the additions of Avery and Antropov to Tortorella's up-tempo attack haven't solved the Rangers' offensive woes. Before yesterday's 4-3 win over Philadelphia, the Rangers had been held to seven goals in their previous four games and are ranked 28th with an average output of 2.44 goals per game.
Despite their struggles in the offensive zone, the Rangers remain a postseason threat because of their play at the other end. Lundqvist, 27, is among the league leaders in wins (38), goals against average (2.43) and save percentage (.916) and has the capability to steal a series on his own. The former seventh- round draft pick has led the Rangers into the second round each of the past two seasons.
The Capitals possess the league's third-most potent offense (3.27 goals per game), four players (Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green) who average more than a point a game and the second-best power play (25.2 percent). But the Rangers will counter with the sixth-best goals against average (2.58 per game) and have the top penalty kill unit (87.8 percent).
New York closed the regular season yesterday on a high note with a big win over the rival Flyers. The Capitals, on the other hand, will return to practice this morning and attempt to put Saturday's 7-4 regular season-ending loss to Florida behind them.
"We've been looking forward to [the playoffs] for quite a while," Boudreau said. "We've had meaningful games, but not the kind of meaningful games you would like to have. Hopefully that display was a display of a team that had nowhere to go and nothing really to accomplish. We'll get back to practice and get ready for New York."
Capitals Note: The Rangers and Capitals have met four times previously in the postseason, but not since New York's run to the Stanley Cup in 1994. Each team has won two series.