Capitals left wing Jason Chimera and New York Rangers center Brian Boyle continue to have words as the referees pull them apart during Game 3. (Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST)

When the Washington Capitals’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series began, there wasn’t a moment for the New York Rangers to breathe. The Capitals finished every check on every shift and made a priority out of punishing the Rangers’ ice-time leaders.

That relentless physical play, the Capitals believed, was taxing on their foes and led to mistakes of exhaustion such as the errant turnover by Marc Staal that led to Alexander Semin’s game-winning goal in the opening contest.

As the Capitals prepare for Game 4 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, they hold a two-games-to-one lead but acknowledge that they were outworked in the teams’ last meeting. They will look to reestablish that tenacious physicality, led by Alex Ovechkin’s example, that served them so well in the first two games. The challenge, though, will be maintaining a high intensity level without reacting to any of the Rangers’ agitation.

En route to a 3-2 victory in Game 3, The Rangers took special care to run into or slash goaltender Michal Neuvirth and chirp at the Capitals during each stoppage in play, sometimes resulting in retaliation but always at least sparking irritation. While New York makes no qualms about mucking things up between whistles, the Capitals maintain that they don’t want to get involved in any extracurricular antics.

“I don’t think we should,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “I think maybe we should just focus on playing the game and make sure we stay away from that kind of stuff. It’s playoffs and there’s a lot of emotion involved. That’s something we have to deal with.”

While the players want to keep the focus isolated to on-ice play, it might be difficult. The longer this series goes, the more attention can dovetail toward things such as Coach Bruce Boudreau calling Madison Square Garden “nothing” and “not that loud” during a radio interview, or Rangers Coach John Tortorella categorizing Boudreau’s concern about New York targeting the head of recently concussed Mike Green as “whining.”

Even if they don’t want to take on the role of agitators, the Capitals said they do feel the necessity to roll up their sleeves and be a little more deliberate, a little more mean, when it comes to dishing out hard checks.

“Any time we can lay a body on someone, especially someone who plays big minutes, we have to do it. It can’t be halfway,” Matt Bradley said. “It might slow them down by the end of the game, and no matter who you are, when you have the opportunity, you have to do it.”

New York made a habit of ensuring no Washington defenseman escaped a shoulder-crunching check for the duration of Sunday’s contest. Meanwhile, the Capitals took eight penalties and handcuffed their ability to roll all four forward lines consistently and match the Rangers’ physical play.

“Some of our skilled guys got to do some things that they don’t normally do and hit some guys,” Jason Chimera said. “But after the whistle, just leave it alone. We have no time for penalties after the whistle. Those are dumb penalties and we don’t need to take them.”

Hits are a subjective statistic in the NHL, dependent upon the judgment call of the particular official responsible for the notation, but the Rangers out-hit Washington 41-29 in Game 3 and have a 110-99 edge in the series. The number isn’t all that important, but making the commitment to wear down the opponent is.

Brooks Laich, who dished out one of the more memorable checks of the series in Game 2 when he collided with Sean Avery and sent the Rangers’ super-pest flying horizontally in the opposite direction, said tiring an opponent out is a conscious decision that can provide an extra advantage over the course of a playoff series.

“Little battles within a series, you always want to wear players down. It’s no secret those two guys [Staal and Dan Girardi] play their top defensive minutes,” Laich said. “So whether it’s them or whether it’s their third or fourth defensemen, we just want to keep hitting them and wearing them down. If you’re going to make the investment of skating over that far, make the investment to finish.”