Rangers: What a difference a year makes

Ryan Callahan celebrates his first period goal Sunday with his teammates.

Two hundred and ninety-eight days is not an especially long period of time, but for the Rangers and Capitals, it might as well be a lifetime ago.

It was 298 days ago that the Rangers’ 2010-11 season effectively came to a heartbreaking end, as they blew a three-goal, third-period lead and lost, 4-3, in double overtime to the Capitals in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at the Garden. Three days later, the Rangers dropped a 3-1 decision to lose the series in five games.

The Rangers and Capitals have engaged in role reversal nearly a full calendar year later. The Rangers increased their Eastern Conference-leading point total to 77 after Sunday afternoon’s nationally televised 3-2 win over the Capitals at the Garden.

Washington is one point out of the last playoff spot in the East and has the appearance of a team that does not know what it wants to be.

“I like it this way a lot better,” Brandon Prust said after scoring the game-winning, short-handed goal. It was his first goal since the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime win over Calgary on Oct. 20.

“It’s a little different. They were the team with the bull’s eye on their back. This year it’s kind of us [in that role]. Definitely a little different.”

What last year’s series highlighted was the Rangers’ need for a potent attack.

Enter free agent signing Brad Richards.

Richards is the first to admit that his production is not where he wants it to be, as he only has 39 points in 53 games. Still, he has merged his game into the style the Rangers play. 

“The foundation is there. Obviously they wanted to add some talent to get more goals, help the goaltending they have and the defensive structure they have,” Richards said while standing outside the Rangers’ dressing room after Sunday’s win. “We’re not taking away from that. That’s the structure of the team — the best way we can compete.”

Contrast that with the mismatched collection of athletes that make up the 2011-12 Washington Capitals. General manager George McPhee made modifications to what was the Eastern Conference regular season champions after the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay in the second round.  
 
Grinding forwards Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward signed with Washington, as did defenseman Roman Hamrlik and goaltender Tomas Vokoun. The belief was that the quintet would augment the Caps’ roster, populated by elite skill.
 
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. The Capitals are 28-22-5 after Sunday’s loss and often appear disjointed. Washington has been beset by injuries to its top players and McPhee was forced to replace Bruce Boudreau with Dale Hunter as head coach.

So while Washington skates in circles it is the Rangers that seemed primed for a long playoff run.

Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.


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