There was Dan Girardi, sitting at his stall Friday night, a few minutes after the Rangers had ended the Pittsburgh Penguins' season in the Metropolitan Division Semifinals, and he was asked to gauge his team's play.
Surely, eliminating the team that employs two of the ten best hockey players in the world would be cause for self-satisfaction, yes?
"I think it's pretty good," Girardi said. "But I still think we need to find another level. Every series from now on gets harder. For points in this series we were spot on and playing great hockey. Sometimes we were on our heels a bit and in our end for an extended period of time."
A mere fifty-three words offering a glimpse into the collective psyche of a team that's about to engage in another protracted playoff face-off with a long time rival.
For the ninth time overall, and the fifth time since the 2008-09 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Rangers and Washington Capitals are going to compete in a best-of-seven series. The teams have split the previous eight meetings, with the Rangers having won the last two series.
Game 1 is Thursday night at the Garden.
While the Rangers had five off days--outside of practices, mind you--the Capitals were engaged in an exceptionally physical seven game series against the Islanders. Washington took the series with a 2-1 win in Game 7 Monday night at Verizon Center.
Like the Rangers, the Capitals enter the Metropolitan Division Final feeling confident.
“It was a phenomenal game," Braden Holtby told reporters in Washington Monday night after eliminating the Islanders. "It‘s the best I’ve seen us play, everybody. It was an effort that probably should have been more than 2-1 with the way we played, but start to finish, it was the game we’ve been trying to groom all year, and it should do us a lot of confidence that we can play a full 60 [minutes].”
Under first-year coach Barry Trotz, Washington has implemented a heavy forechecking system which wore down the Islanders as the series progressed. The Islanders were undermanned heading into the best-of-seven as second-pair defenseman Travis Hamonic was out with what was revealed Tuesday as Grade 3 torn medial collateral ligament. During the series, the Islanders lost their other second pair defenseman, Lubomir Visnovsky, following a thunderous hit from Tom Wilson in Game 4, and sixth defenseman Calvin de Haan in Game 5.
“We came out way harder," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom told reporters after Game 7. "Way more physical. Especially in the first two periods, we were on top of their [defensemen]. Made it hard for them to make plays. I think that’s what sets the tone for this game. Obviously, they came back and tied it up, but we found a way to win. I thought we played a pretty good game tonight, and we deserved it.”
So don't expect Washington to change its style. Not against a Rangers squad that will not have Mats Zuccarello due to what the organization has termed an upper body injury.
Still, the Rangers are hopeful that the downtime between series will benefit them.
"Rest is your best friend this time of year," Girardi said. It just helps everybody, from the guys who are out, to guys who are playing. Just overall it's nice to have some rest, spend some family time. It's a good thing. We haven't seen a lot of that the last two, three years. It's good to close out the series. We're really happy it's over and look forward to the next one now.
"Getting rest is obviously huge. We have to be smart with our preparation and not wander too far away from the game. Get some rest but still prepare ourselves for the next series, even though we don't know who we're playing yet. Take the rest when you can but obviously we're going to get prepared. Guys will get rest, maybe get a couple workouts in, and feel good for the next series."
The Metropolitan Division rivals met four times in the regular season, with the Rangers winning three of those games. The Rangers outscored the Capitals by an aggregate 13-10 in the four games, despite allowing Alex Ovechkin five goals on 16 shots. Further examination reveals four of Ovechkin's five goals came on the man advantage.
If there is anything that can be transferred from the Pittsburgh series to this one, presumably it would be a defensive game plan which limited Sidney Crosby to four points in the five games and held Evgeni Malkin scoreless.
"I probably wouldn't have believed it," Girardi said, when asked what he would have said had he been told before the series that the Rangers would have essentially kept Crosby and Malkin in check. "We would have liked to have done a little better job on Crosby in Game 2, but sometimes you have to tip your cap to the world's best player. I think overall we did a strong job. It wasn't just one D-pair, one line; from [Henrik Lundqvist] out, we played five-man units back there. It's everybody helping out. Obviously we're pretty happy with the job we did against those guys."