The Capitals were still giving their fans the shirts off their backs Saturday night when they learned their first-round playoff opponents would be the New York Rangers.
If familiarity breeds contempt, there is a whole lot of contempt between the Caps and Rangers.
“They're a real physical team,” said Capitals right wing Eric Fehr. “It's going to be a tough opponent. Obviously, we have a little bit of history with them. 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.”
These two teams need no introduction.
This will be the third straight year the Caps and Rangers meet in the playoffs and their fourth meeting in five years.
In the first round of the 2009 playoffs the Caps beat the Rangers in seven games and went on to lose to the Penguins in seven games.
In the first round of the 2011 playoffs the Caps beat the Rangers in five games and were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 2.
Last season the Capitals beat the Boston Bruins in seven games in round one and were beaten by the Rangers in seven games in the conference semifinals.
“We know how we need to play to beat them and it’s just more about execution,” defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Last year’s second-round playoff series between the Caps and Rangers pitted two very similar styles. Rangers coach John Tortorella and Capitals coach Dale Hunter both employed defense-first system that emphasized shot blocking.
This year’s Capitals, under first-year coach Adam Oates, is more attack oriented, averaging 3.1 goals per game compared to 2.7 goals last season, without losing its defensive edge. The Caps allowed an average of 2.8 goals last season and 2.7 goals this season.
“We throw another look at them, for sure,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “The games will be a lot different than they were last year.”
That doesn’t mean they’ll be easier, Alzner pointed out.
“They’ll be tough to play,” he said. “The Rangers are built for the playoffs and if they can stay healthy they’re definitely a contender.”
The Rangers won two of the three games in the season series but have made some drastic personnel moves since last losing to the Caps in a shootout at MadisonSquareGarden on March 24.
On April 2, with the Rangers two points out of a playoff spot, general manager Glen Sather acquired gritty forward Ryane Clowe from San Jose in exchange for draft picks, and picked up hard-skating center Derick Brassard, who was taken sixth overall in the 2006 draft, right wing Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore from Columbus for the offensively gifted but unproductive Marian Gaborik.
Clowe gives the Rangers the physical edge they had been missing since the departure of Brandon Prust and Brassard gives them some of the offense they gave up when Brandon Dubinsky was dealt to Columbus for Rick Nash.
The Rangers went 9-3-1 after making the trades and will hit the playoffs playing their best hockey of the season – much like the Capitals.
“We know the way they play,” Oates said. “We know the way Tortorella coaches his team. In saying that, they have new players and we haven’t played them since they made their trades. Generally, though they play the same way.”