GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- In matching up against the Washington Capitals for the third straight year, beginning Thursday night in D.C., the Rangers face a familiar foe with an understanding of what to expect in a series between the two clubs.
Four times in the past five years the Rangers and Caps have met in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Coaches, personnel and system structures have changed, but the enmity has not.
"It's always a battle," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "It seems like it usually goes the length or close to it. I think we match up against each other pretty evenly."
Last April was a prime example, when the teams met in Round 2. The top-seeded Rangers prevailed, but it took seven grueling games to do it.
No game was more indicative of the grit, passion and intensity level that characterized that series than Game 3 -- a triple-OT match that went on well past midnight in a true war of attrition until Marian Gaborik's game-winner ended it after 114 minutes of play.
"That was a really hard-fought series and that game pretty much summed it up," said defenseman Dan Girardi, who logged 44:26 minutes on the Rangers' back end that night. "Overall, I just think it's going to be a really big battle. I think in front of both nets is gonna be key, what team can establish the forecheck and control the tempo there."
Girardi has drawn the unenviable task of matching up against Alex Ovechkin throughout the years, and that duty is not bound to get any easier with Ovechkin entering the postseason on a stunning clip.
Capturing the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal-scorer for the third time in his NHL career, Ovechkin finished the regular season at a scorching pace. Earning the NHL's first star of the month, Ovechkin notched 14 goals and 22 points in the month of April while leading his team to yet another Southeast Divison title.
No. 8 may have gotten off to a sluggish start, in part because of a transition from his natural wing, but he has since proven that he can still electrify and dominate a game.
"He's dynamic whatever side he's on," Girardi said. "He never really stays on one side for long… so we'll have our hands full with him. He's playing really well right now. We've got to be sharp against that line and their second, third, and fourth lines. They have four solid lines that can fore-check and score some goals. We're going to have to be very strong defensively."
The Rangers will likely have to do so without cornerstone defenseman Marc Staal, who has yet to play since suffering a frightening eye injury March 5.
Staal continued to practice with the team Monday, but does not appear to be nearing a return.
"I haven't written myself off, obviously," Staal said. "So far, every day I try to improve and get more work in and get more comfortable and confident with the puck in situations I'm going to be in on the ice."
With that gaping hole on their back end, the Rangers may choose to split their normal defensive pairings and separate Girardi and partner Ryan McDonagh ( as coach John Tortorella indicated before Saturday's game ) to achieve more balance on the blue line. Regardless, the Rangers will have to rely on reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist in net.
Though 23-year-old Braden Holtby has been impressive of late for the Caps, Lundqvist gives the Rangers a distinct edge in goal.
Plus, he will be well rested with four days off after making 14 consecutive starts to end the regular season.
Lundqvist has plenty of experience playing against Washington in the playoffs, but this year's team is a decidedly new look than previous years, he said.
"It's the same team name but it's a different look, especially when I look at them over the last four, five years here," Lundqvist said. "It was all about offense, then all about defense, now it's in the middle. They're a team where you have to respect a lot of things about their game, especially their offensive, top guys."
Fortunately for the Rangers, they’ll have three full days to prepare for the new-look Caps under rookie head coach Adam Oates' direction. That's a luxury afforded them with an unusual schedule that doesn't have the teams meeting until Thursday for Game 1.
Plus, the series ends in unusual fashion with Games 6 and 7 slated to be played on back-to-back nights Sunday May 12 and Monday May 13.
The schedule won't make much difference, Girardi said. After all, both teams know what they're in for in Round 1.
"Both teams know each other really well and I think both teams are raring to get going," Girardi said. "I think we both wish we were starting earlier, but both teams will be ready come Thursday."