Reporting David Elfin
The Capitals are just 2-4, but expect Verizon Center to really be rockin’ the red Wednesday night. That’s because the New York Rangers will be in the building for the first time since they stunned host Washington 5-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals five months ago.
That defeat, which followed a 1-0 New York victory at Madison Square Garden in Game 6, concluded the fourth Caps-Rangers playoff showdown in five years. So the rivalry was already strong before the NHL reshuffled its divisions and put Washington and New York back together for the first time since 1998. Coincidentally, that was the last season that the Caps advanced beyond the conference semifinals.
“Last year’s always on your mind,” admitted Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “You want to pay ‘em back. If we do play ‘em in the playoffs [again], we want to know that we can beat these guys. It does mean more [than in the past] because they’re in our division and you’re jockeying for the top three spots before the [playoff] wild card[s].”
There’s more at stake than in recent regular seasons, but the Caps have always been pumped to face the Rangers since the teams renewed their postseason rivalry in 2009 after a 15-year break.
“We always get excited to play these guys because of the history that we’ve had,” Brouwer said. “It’s on [NBC Sports Network’s] ‘Rivalry Wednesday’ for a reason. We’ve had good battles against those guys.”
Indeed. The teams split their four playoff series over the past five years with the Caps winning 14 of the 26 games. They also captured 10 of the 17 regular season matchups during that span.
While Washington has settled into the system run by Adam Oates, who last January became their third coach in 14 months, New York is adjusting to new coach Alain Vigneault’s more up-tempo approach after four-plus seasons under the defensive-minded John Tortorella. And as disappointed as the Caps are with their start, the Rangers are 1-4 while being outscored 25-9.
“They’ve given up way more goals than you ever would’ve expected,” Oates said of the Rangers, who still boast 2012 Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist in goal but are minus injured fleet forwards Rick Nash and Carl Hagelin. “They’re not the same team right now.”
But Brouwer sees the same bunch led by gritty captain Ryan Callahan and the formidable defensive pair of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh.
“They’re a tough team to play against,” Brouwer said. “They’ve got a little bit of a different look, but it’s still the same players. We know what they like to do on the ice.”
And despite scoring just four goals in their three most recent games before Monday night’s 4-2 triumph over visiting Edmonton and only nine at even strength during their six games, compared to eight on the NHL’s top-rated power play, the Caps believe in what they’re doing.
“We’re a confident bunch,” said left wing Jason Chimera. “We know what we’ve got here. We’ve got good goalies. We’ve got scoring. It’s not like it’s disappeared. It’s gonna happen.”
Brouwer is equally upbeat.
“Every game with the exception of Colorado, we’ve given ourselves a chance to win,” he said. “In our losses to Chicago and Carolina, we had the lead in the third period and weren’t able to close it out. You’re gonna blow a few leads a season. It’s kind of magnified because it happened twice so early and our record is 2-4. We still feel we’re playing real good hockey. We have trust in our system.”
Fortunately for Washington, only division favorite Pittsburgh is over .500 in the Metropolitan. The Caps are just three points out of second place and two out of third despite not once leading after the first period.
“It’s good for us,” Chimera said of the division’s struggles. “A lot of times you’ll see a lot of teams [start] 5-0, 6-0 so it’s tougher to catch up. We definitely need more energy coming out [of the dressing room] whether on our line’s part or as individuals. You can preach all you want about fast starts, but you’ve gotta be ready to go as an individual. Teams are too good now. They’re gonna bury you. It’ll be 2-0 or 3-0 before you shake your heads.”
There was plenty of head-shaking on F Street when the Caps started the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season in a new system at 2-8-1 before reversing course to win a fifth Southeast Division title in six years.
“Last year was different,” Oates said. “We had a lot of excuses. This year we didn’t. But we’ve played better hockey [to this point] than we did last year. We play [the Rangers] a lot and we know them. It should get the intensity up a little bit which should help our start. But you win [Wednesday] and it doesn’t mean anything. They [still] beat us in Game 7.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.