NEW YORK -- By the end of tonight, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh and Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin will be tired of seeing each other.
The two have battled each other like pit bulls, Ovechkin’s brute strength vs. McDonagh’s dogged determination.
Heading into tonight’s Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, the script has been eerily similar to the one in 2013.
Two years ago, in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Ovechkin had a goal and an assist and was a plus-1 in Games 1 and 2 against the Rangers, then was shut out and was a minus-3 in the final five games of the series as the Caps fell in seven.
This year, Ovechkin recorded two goals and one assist in Games 1 and 2, only to be held without a point and saddled with a minus-2 in the past four games.
“You need to be real focused,” McDonagh, 25, said of his nightly battles with Ovechkin. “You need to trust yourself and trust your teammates, too. You can’t get zoned in too much on where he’s at because there can be someone else open, too, and he’s able to make the play and get that other player the puck for a scoring opportunity.
“Ultimately, you can never let your guard down because you can see him create opportunities from what looks like a nothing play. Pucks seem to find him and he gets another whack at it. You’ve got to be strong and focus on being in front of him at all times.”
Since Ovechkin split McDonagh and Dan Girardi for a highlight reel goal in Game 2, McDonagh and Girardi have forced the Caps’ leading goal scorer to play a perimeter game and have held him silent on the power play.
The battle between Ovchkin and McDonagh reached a crescendo near the end of Game 6 when Ovechkin was stopped by Henrik Lundqvist, then slammed McDonagh to the boards. McDonagh, who twice separated his left shoulder, left the game briefly, but came back for the conclusion of the game.
“It’s hard to enjoy it when Ryan gets hit like he did last game,” Rangers forward Tanner Glass said. “They’re two great players and they’re having a great series, both guys.”
“It’s two elite players,” Capitals center Derek Stepan said of Ovechkin and McDonagh. “Obviously, Ovechkin on the offensive side and Mac on the defensive side. It makes for a great battle. They’ve been doing it for five years now. Every time Ovechkin’s on the ice Mac will be out there and it seems to make for a great rivalry.”
Taken 12th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 NHL draft and traded to the Rangers for Scott Gomez,, McDonagh has developed into a quietly effective captain for the Rangers, averaging more than 23 minutes a game in this series.
“He’s had some great opportunities to match up against some great players and he’s always met those head on,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s a good skater that can move the puck well and there’s a physical dimension to his game. That’s a great battle that’s been going on for six games and we’re going to get an opportunity to see the battle continue in Game 7.”
When it’s over, win or lose, McDonagh said the respect he has for Ovechkin will be renewed.
“It’s the beauty of playing this game as competitors, trying to give your team its best chance to win,” he said, “and understanding what your job is to the team. It’s the beauty of playing sports, for sure.”
As for that Ovechkin statement that the Caps would return to New York to win the series, Glass took issue. Sort of.
“Everyone thinks it,” Glass said. “He said it. It’s gone.”