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Rangers brace for new-look, more physical Capitals

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The rivalry between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals is real. There is no denying that.

It's a rivalry built from four meetings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a span of five years from 2009-13. It's a rivalry built from three seven-game series, from comebacks and from six postseason overtime games, including one that went three extra periods.

But it's also a rivalry that likely will take on a different look in the 2015 Eastern Conference Second Round, which begins with Game 1 on Thursday at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The Rangers and Capitals have undergone drastic changes in personnel and style since they played in the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

"I can't see it resembling anything from two years ago," Rangers left wing Rick Nash said. "New coaches, new systems, and the game evolves in two years."

Two years ago, when the Rangers came back to win the series by winning Games 6 and 7 by a combined 6-0, New York was coached by John Tortorella and Washington was coached by Adam Oates. Tortorella is out of the League, and Oates is co-coach with the New Jersey Devils.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault and Capitals coach Barry Trotz have gone against each other once in the playoffs, but never as part of a New York-Washington series. Vigneault led the Vancouver Canucks to a 4-2 series win against Trotz and the Nashville Predators in 2011.

The Rangers have 10 players remaining from the team that played Washington in 2013.

The Capitals have 13, but they have changed their style in a massive way under Trotz. They are still able to outscore teams with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Mike Green, but they are far more physical and deeper on defense under Trotz than they were under Oates, Dale Hunter or Bruce Boudreau.

Adding Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, as well as Tim Gleason, has changed the look of Washington's defense. It's as punishing as it is mobile, as the New York Islanders found out, particularly in Game 7 on Monday, when the Capitals limited them to 11 shots on goal.

"You look at their six defensemen and they've changed there," Rangers center Derek Stepan said. "They signed Niskanen and Orpik, and those guys have really helped them. Their defensemen are real big and real strong, and they're going to make sure they make our lives difficult."

The Rangers expect a physical series such as the one the Capitals just finished against the Islanders. The Capitals knocked two Islanders defensemen out of the series because of their physicality.

"I know they're a physical team, and that's going to be expected, but you're in the second round of the playoffs, you should expect some physicality," Rangers right wing Martin St. Louis said. "It's not going to be any different from what a second round [series] should look like."

The Rangers aren't worried about matching the Capitals' physicality, but they'd prefer to counter it by playing fast, which is a staple of their system under Vigneault. That's how they're different from when they played under Tortorella, whose system was geared toward the Rangers protecting the front of their own net instead of attacking the opposition's.

Vigneault's version of the Rangers generates speed out of the defensive zone either with quick D-to-D passes that open room in the middle of the ice or with a stretch pass to a streaking forward.

New York scored two of its goals in the first round because it caught the Pittsburgh Penguins in slow line changes. The Rangers got a goal from center Derick Brassard 28 seconds into the first period of Game 1 because the Penguins were on their heels and mesmerized by New York's speed.

"We have to manage the puck well so they don't get to use their size as much," St. Louis said.

The Rangers did that for the most part against the Penguins and they won the series in five games. They don't expect too much to change against Washington other than the fact that the Capitals are deeper on the back end than the Penguins and have an elite power play.

Washington was 15.4 percent (2-for-13) on the power play in the first round, but it had the No. 1 power play in the NHL in the regular season at 25.3 percent (60-for-237). Ovechkin scored 25 of his League-best 53 goals on the power play, including four of the five goals he scored against the Rangers.

"I think they really take care of their D zone really well," New York defenseman Dan Girardi said. "Watching the game [Monday] night a bit, they held the Islanders to 11 shots, so they're really committed to their defense. All their guys are doing that, and they have the firepower up front to make you pay for their mistakes. They're a really complete team, and we're going to have our hands full in this series."

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