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Rangers eager to test mettle vs. Capitals

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
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Playoffs Open Wednesday in Washington

By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com

Still carrying the positive vibes created by a strong finish to the 2008-09 regular season, the Rangers began serious preparations on Monday for their first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals.

A crisp 45-minute on-ice session at the MSG Training Center, as well as meetings and off-ice workouts, made for a seemingly typical practice day for the Rangers. However, underneath the normalcy projected by the routine of the practice, was a sense of excitement and urgency what with the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinals set begin on Wednesday evening in the nation’s capital.

Stopping the high-flying Alex Ovechkin will be a high priority for Ryan Callahan and the Rangers, who will use all six players on the ice to make sure No. 8 can't take over any postseason games.
“We play to be in the playoffs,” said winger Fredrik Sjostrom. “This is the best time of the year. It’s like a new season, and it really doesn’t matter what you’ve done before. Now it’s starting from scratch. It’s really exciting and a lot of fun.”

The Rangers closed out the regular season in style, winning three in a row, all against fellow playoff teams from the East -- two against the Flyers and one against the Canadiens. Sunday’s win in Philadelphia was especially impressive because the Rangers rallied from three separate one-goal deficits, scored twice in the third period on the road, and earned a 4-3 victory in a contest that had zero playoff implications for the visitors, but still had some for the home team.

Many of the players believe that the Rangers have built some important momentum heading into the postseason, though others agree with Sjostrom that all 16 playoff teams are starting from scratch come Wednesday.

Head coach John Tortorella stated, “It’s good to win three games in a row, find a way to get in (to the playoffs), and hopefully we’ll continue to grow. We still have some things to work on, but we’ll be ready to play (on Wednesday).”

One important player who did not take part in practice on Monday was team captain Chris Drury, who is “a bit banged up” according to Tortorella. Drury, who recorded four points (2-2-4) in critical Rangers’ victories on Tuesday and Thursday, also did not play in the regular-season finale on Sunday since the Blueshirts had already clinched a post-season berth.

Listed as “day-to-day”, the Rangers are hopeful that Drury will be able to play in the series opener in Washington on Wednesday.

“When it came down to an important week, it’s interesting who steps up,” said Tortorella. “That’s what (Drury) has been about for a long time in this league. He accepts that responsibility. He’s going to have to be that guy come playoff time, and I’m confident he’ll be that.”

Certainly the Rangers want to be at full strength against a very explosive and talented Capitals squad in this series. Washington finished second in the conference with 108 points, and they scored 272 goals, third-most of any team in the entire National Hockey League.

Front and center offensively for the Caps is superstar Alex Ovechkin, who led the league with 56 goals and ranked second with 110 points. Last year’s Hart Trophy winner as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player might just be in line for another Hart this year, and he is looking to win a playoff series for the first time in his career.

The Rangers are well aware that it will take a team-wide effort to keep Ovechkin in check, and that not just one forward combination, or a defensive pairing like the one of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, can do the job alone.

“We need to give (Ovechkin) the proper respect because he’s a helluva’ player,” stated Tortorella. “We respect him, and know that he’s one of the most dangerous guys in the league. We’re going to have our hands full with him.”

When asked what exactly it is that Ovechkin does so well, or so much better than others in the game, Staal took a deep breath and let a small smile crease his face.

“The amount of times he shoots, and where he can shoot it from, and how he can shoot it from anywhere, is all unique,” said Staal. “Off the rush, he just likes to shoot and doesn’t care where it’s going, whether it’s through you or around you.”

Staal already has developed a spirited rivalry with Ovechkin the past two seasons, and that is sure to increase exponentially over the course of an intense playoff series. It is a challenge that he is looking forward to.

“He’s one of the best in the world, so it’s going to be a big challenge,” said Staal. “But it’s going to be six guys on the ice trying to stop him, and not just one.”

Staal, among others, also pointed out that too much focus on Ovechkin could be a big problem for the Rangers because the Caps are loaded with top-flight offensive talent. Defenseman Mike Green put forth a Norris Trophy-caliber season, finishing with 31 goals and 73 points, while forwards Alexander Semin (34-45-79) and Niklas Backstrom (22-66-88) are also world-class players.

“They have some people there that are dangerous,” said Tortorella. “It’s going to have to be a team effort here to control them offensively.”

That is, in part, what the Rangers discussed and worked on during Monday’s practice session, as the club began the first day of its second season within the 2008-09 campaign.

There will be one more day of practice in Westchester on Tuesday, followed by a short trip down to Washington D.C. for the Rangers. And then the much-anticipated Game 1 of what should be an exciting series takes place on Wednesday. 
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