John Carlson knew better than to retaliate, but standing with one hand on the jersey of New York’s Brian Boyle as the forward took three swings at his head, the Capitals defenseman reacted. Carlson punched back, and late in the third period of Game 3 of this first-round series, both he and Boyle went off for roughing.

“Just a hockey play, you know. It just happens. Heat of the moment and that’s just what happens,” Carlson said of the incident with Boyle. “I shouldn’t get myself into that, especially [as a] defensemen. You only have six of them. You can’t be in the box it’s something that I did and, you know, it sucks.”

Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers may have been at their peskiest so far in this series. They repeatedly ran into Michal Neuvirth, they yapped at any Capital in earshot – particularly the line of Sean Avery, Brandon Prust and Boyle – and aimed to get under everyone’s skin. The challenge for Washington is to not react, or at least not step over a line that results in a penalty, in those situations. But as Carlson learned when dealing with Boyle, that’s easier said than done.

“I’ve just got to stay out of it,” Carlson said. “It’s pretty easy to think about it and stay out of it, but it’s harder to go out there and do it. And it’s playoffs now; you have to bear down.”

The risk of a penalty may be even greater when it comes to the Capitals trying to stand up for Neuvirth. Washington wants to protect its goaltender, but can’t afford to put itself at a disadvantage by doing so, either.

“It’s a really double-edged sword because if we start doing something, we’re gonna get retaliation penalties, which is what you tell the guys not to do,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You’re hoping that they’re being called. If it’s not called, there’s not much you can do without getting involved in four-on-four situations and taking guys out.”

In his postgame comments at Madison Square Garden, Boudreau stressed that this is the time of year players are expected to put up with increased amounts of agitation and not give into the temptation to fight back. With talk of minimizing penalties being a crucial element moving forward in the series, the Capitals would do well to at least take care of those they can prohibit by reigning in their emotions.

“I think we need to not worry about it. But it is tough,” Karl Alzner said. “They get warnings all game and then we finally do one thing because we’re upset about the warnings and then that’s what happens. So it is a little frustrating for us, but you got to do whatever it takes. Might be a few punches in the head or a couple slashes in the back of the legs, but it shouldn’t matter right now.”