After 48 games exclusively against Eastern Conference opponents, the Washington Capitals acknowledged there was no avoiding a familiar foe in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
But there’s no denying that the Capitals are particularly well-acquainted with the opponent they drew, the New York Rangers. The series, which will start Thursday, will mark the fourth time in five years that they’ve faced off in the postseason. Washington went 1-2 against the Rangers this regular season, with its only victory coming in a shootout on March 24.
“They’re a real physical team. It’s going to be a tough opponent. Obviously, we have a little bit of history with them,” winger Eric Fehr said Saturday night after a 3-2 overtime defeat of Boston in Washington’s regular season finale. “We’ve played them a number of times. It’s going to be a man’s series, no question. They’ve got a lot of big guys and they like to play physical. It’s a good challenge for us.”
Only five players on the Capitals’ roster — Mike Ribeiro, Martin Erat, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy and Aaron Volpatti — haven’t been involved in at least one of the three previous series between the two teams. (Wojtek Wolski, while in his first year in Washington, played for the Rangers during the first-round matchup in 2010-11.)
The frequency of the matchups makes for few secrets between foes and creates the potential for a hard-nosed series.
“Definitely it’s going to be tough matches all the time,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who on Sunday clinched his third Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer in the regular season. “We just have to play simple and play our game. If we’re going to play our game, we’re going to get success. In the playoffs, you have to give everything you can to get success.”
Washington claimed victories in two of the previous series, but last season the Rangers triumphed in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Last year’s matchup pivoted in Game 5, when a penalty by Joel Ward paved the way for Brad Richards to tie the game with 7.6 seconds remaining in regulation and then Marc Staal to score the game-winner in overtime. While the Capitals won Game 6 to force a decisive Game 7, New York had the momentum from the moment it snatched that victory.
“Obviously we felt we were better for seven games last year,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We know they’re a good team and we played them before. It’s going to be a tough battle. I think we’re ready and they’re probably ready as well. It’s going to be, I think, a long series.”