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Ovechkin braces himself for another war on ice

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Ovechkin braces himself for another war on ice

As he skated through the post-game handshake line following the Capitals’ brutally physical seven-game victory over the New York Islanders, Alex Ovechkin heard words of encouragement from Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk:

“Good luck,” Boychuk told a mic’d up Ovechkin. “I hope you achieve your goal.”

Ovechkin is hoping to hear similar words after going toe-to-toe with the New York Rangers’ top defensive pair of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who have set out to make his life miserable for the next two weeks.

“Boychuk and [Nick] Leddy played against our line and it was a huge battle against them,” Ovechkin said before boarding a team flight for New York, where the Capitals and Rangers will begin their second-round series Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. “It’s the same with Girardi and McDonagh.

“We respect each other a lot. I think every player respects each other, especially in the playoffs when you have that kind of war.”

Girardi and McDonagh had similar success against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Round 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, limiting Crosby to two goals and Malkin to none in a five-game elimination.

Two years ago, Girardi and McDonagh held Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to a combined total of two goals and three assists and a minus-4 rating as the Rangers rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to eliminate the Caps in seven games. Ovechkin played right wing in that series and went head-to-head with McDonagh, who plays left defense.

As a left winger this time around, Ovechkin’s one-on-one matchups will come against Girardi, a 6-foot-1, 208-pounder who relies on his positioning and lower-body strength in front of the net.

“I think you have to be up in his face no matter what side he’s on,” Girardi told the New York Daily News.

McDonagh, a 6-foot-1, 213-pounder, agrees.

“He likes to make that move where he carries it in and makes a move to his forehand,” McDonagh said. “If anything, you want try and support Dan in the aspect of maybe trying to take that ice away from him. If there’s a two-on-two situation or a one-on-two situation, he likes to get ahead of his guy sometimes.

“So if I can recognize that and it’s kind of them two on an island, hopefully I can come over and kind of cut that ice out for him so maybe he’s forced to go to his backhand or shoot it before he makes that move.”

During the regular season Ovechkin scored five of his league-best 53 goals against the Rangers. He added two goals and three assists against the Islanders in Round 1 while delivering 31 hits for a top line that combined for six goals and nine assists. [Backstrom had three goals and three assists, while Joel Ward had one goal and three assists].

“Me and Backy always play against Girardi and McDonagh,” Ovechkin said. “We’re familiar with what they’re going to do. We’ll watch more video and remember how they play and what they’re going to do. But it doesn’t matter to us, we’re just gong to do our thing.”

And when this series ends, Ovechkin hopes to hear the same words of encouragement from an equally worn-out opponent.

“After the series you have to shake hands and say a couple good words,” he said. “It’s always been like that and it’s going to be like that.”

[MORE CAPITALS: Projected lineups for Caps and Rangers series opener]

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

With Tom Wilson still serving a 20-game suspension, Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden has the difficult task of finding a wing to complement his top line of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. For the first four games of the season, that player was Brett Connolly.

On Saturday, however, he changed things up and went with Chandler Stephenson instead.

Just 18 seconds into the game, Stephenson made his head coach look very smart as he finished off a 2-on-1 with Kuznetsov to score his first goal of the season.

“Obviously, the start was great,” Reirden said after the game.

Stephenson is an incredibly fast skater and the extra speed seemed to add another dimension to that line that opponents had to contend with, and it led to both of the Caps’ goals on the night.

In addition to Stephenson’s goal, Ovechkin drew a tripping penalty in the second period, and Washington scored on the resulting power play.

“Those guys are a lot of fun to play with,” Stephenson said. “They just know where to be and can find each other. I've just got to get the puck to them and just go to the net with your stick on the ice, and they'll find you.”

The top line’s success was a matter of finding instant chemistry as Stephenson had very little time to adjust. The Caps were off on Friday following back-to-back games, and Reirden did not make the switch of putting Stephenson on the top until Saturday’s morning skate.

Putting a new top line together with little time to practice does not seem like an ideal scenario, but according to Kuznetsov, the level of familiarity between all the players made the adjustment quick and easy.

“It doesn't matter with who you play,” he said. “In this locker room, we can communicate with anybody. We don't have a first line, we don't have a fourth line. We try and roll all lines.”

Reirden seemed pleased with the new trio after the game saying, “They did a number of good things during the game as well, so they I thought accomplished a lot. I thought [Stephenson] brought the speed on the forecheck and was able to at least go after their defense a little bit and force some turnovers that Kuznetsov and [Ovechkin] were able to at least get some opportunities from. So I think that's important to have him in that situation.”

Reirden was happy enough with the top line’s performance to keep them together. The team is off Monday, but Stephenson remained on the top line during Sunday’s practice.

But so long as Wilson remains out, finding the right match for the top line will remain a work in progress.

Said Reirden, “We’ll continue to try to put together our four lines that give us the best chance.”

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NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

There was a lot of excitement to start the season for the Caps. First, there was the home-opener and the banner raising against the Boston Bruins. Then there was a trip to Pittsburgh to take on the rival Penguins. After that, it was a Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Vegas Golden Knights.

And all of that was followed up with a trip to Newark.

CHECK OUT THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

With all due respect to New Jersey, given the slate the Caps faced to start the season, it was no real surprise to see the team struggle to get up for Thursday’s game against the Devils, a game in which the Caps were blown out 6-0. Of all the games Washington faced to start the season, the trip to New Jersey was definitely the least exciting.

But not every game is going to be a big rivalry matchup or a playoff rematch. With every team gunning for the Caps, they better make sure they can get themselves ready for the grind of an 82-game season that won’t always feature a big-time matchup.

A trip to Newark may not be flashy or exciting, but it still counts as two points.

The Caps dropped the game in New Jersey and lost a tight contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Where do they stand now after two straight losses?

FIND OUT HERE IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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