GREENBURGH, N.Y. — New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi shook his head before the question was complete.
After an intense, 90-minute practice session, a reporter told Girardi what Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom said following Washington’s regular season finale against Boston Saturday, that “obviously we felt we were better for seven games last year” when the Rangers defeated the Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But Girardi wasn’t about to bite and provide any bulletin board material just yet.
“We’re not gonna start a war of words. There’s no use for that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what happened last year or the couple years before that. It doesn’t really matter. They’re playing really well right now going into the playoffs and I think we had a solid April as well. So two teams at the top of their game and it’s gonna be quite the series.”
This was the theme throughout New York’s dressing room Monday as the Rangers convened for their first practice since learning they would be facing Washington in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Their latest clash will begin Thursday, which gave Coach John Tortorella an extra day of preparation for Washington. On Monday, however, he spent a considerable amount of time focused on New York’s 23rd-ranked power play, bringing the team back on the ice for a second practice session devoted entirely to the man advantage.
But count Tortorella among those who refuse to draw much from the shared history these franchises have enjoyed in recent seasons.
“It’s who we’re playing and that’s how we’re gonna go about it,” he said about the Capitals. “It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve played.”
There are, however, some new dynamics this time around. As goalie Henrik Lundvist pointed out about the Capitals, “Four or five years ago, they were all about offense. Last year, it was definitely more about defense. This year, it’s a mix. I expect a tough series, but I see it as a great opportunity and a great challenge.”
New York has changed as well, trading for Rick Nash this past offseason and dealing forward Marian Gaborik at the trading deadline. Nash played in just four career playoff games with the Columbus Blue Jackets prior to this year and forward Mats Zuccarello has played in only one. Former Columbus players Derick Brassard and John Moore will make their postseason debuts Thursday for the Rangers.
“I think you always want to get the experience, but I sometimes think innocence is better, where they’re not even worried about what goes on in this type of situation,” Tortorella said. “We have a little bit of a mixture, so we’ll see where we go.”
Like the Capitals, New York has some players that may or may not return in time for the start of the first round Thursday. Injured forwards Ryane Clowe (undisclosed) and Brian Boyle (lower body) were not on the ice Monday, but defenseman Marc Staal (right eye) and forward Derek Dorsett (broken clavicle) did skate with the team.
Staal missed the final 27 games of the regular season after being struck in the eye by a puck on March 5, but he has not ruled out a return in these playoffs. He is now wearing a visor on the ice as a protective measure.
“The last two weeks, I haven’t written myself out of any situation,” said Staal, whose right eye still appeared to be bloodshot Monday. “I need a couple days of where I’m feeling comfortable and confident … When that time comes, you guys will be the first to know.”
Here’s what New York’s lines and defensive pairings looked Monday at practice. Obviously, these could change before the puck drops Thursday night at Verizon Center.
Carl Hagelin-Derek Stepan-Ryan Callahan
Mats Zuccarello-Brad Richards- Rick Nash
Taylor Pyatt-Derick Brassard-Chris Kreider
Michael Haley-Darrell Powe-Aaron Asham
Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto-Anton Stralman
John Moore-Steve Eminger