NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — When the Rangers arrive at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series, they’ll face a Capitals team that is less elegant and more workmanlike than the one they routed during the Christmas shopping season.
It took a while to get the new style down pat, but Washington won 16 of its last 20 regular season games to again claim the conference’s top seed.
“We played them a couple of games when they were struggling a little bit,” said New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose team won three of four against the Capitals this season. “Now I think they’re a better team. They have more confidence and their top players are playing well. It’s going to be a lot tougher for us to get the wins, but we’re a confident group right now.”
New York barely scraped into the playoffs — clinching the No. 8 spot only when the Carolina Hurricanes lost their final game of season — but the Rangers and Capitals are remarkably close in many statistical categories and now play similar close-to-the-vest schemes that should produce mostly tight, low-scoring games.
Given what happened last year, when Washington blew a 3-1 series lead and was eliminated by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, the underdogs don’t have to feel like a long shot.
“I feel any team is pretty dangerous in the playoffs,” New York left wing Ruslan Fedotenko said. “Here you have one versus eight and other things, but it’s a whole new game.”
LISTEN: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman previews Rangers-Capitals with Boomer & Carton
The turning point for the Capitals came on Sunday, Dec. 12, when they were shut out 7-0 by the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
It was Washington’s sixth straight loss. Alex Ovechkin was so frustrated he got into a rare fight in the second period. Coach Bruce Boudreau wrapped up the evening by saying: “I think we have a lot of people feeling sorry for themselves.”
Boudreau brought the team home and made a major decision. No longer would the Capitals be the up-and-down, high-scoring team that coasted to the NHL’s best regular season record a year ago. The system was going to change. Defensive accountability was the new theme. And this would happen in midseason — not in training camp — the sports equivalent of tinkering with the car while driving 70 mph down the interstate.
Ovechkin, who has two league MVP awards but only one playoff series win in his career, said he had no qualms about the switch.
“If it’s good for team, I will do it,” Ovechkin said. “And if Bruce tell me ‘Do this,’ I’m going to do it. He’s my coach, and I’m going to listen to him.”
Said Boudreau: “Look, every player in the world likes to score goals, but we’ve gone through that. The best players have scored. The best players on our team have won all kinds of awards and accolades and everything else, and the one thing they haven’t won is the big one.”
Every Capitals playoff series has gone to seven games since Boudreau became coach in 2007. Washington has won only one, coming from 3-1 down to beat the Rangers two years ago.
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