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Rangers a very different opponent than Islanders


Rangers a very different opponent than Islanders

The Capitals and Rangers are no strangers to each other in the playoffs, having met three times in the past four years.

Beginning Thursday night in Madison Square Garden, they’ll go at it again.

This time, the defending Eastern Conference champion Rangers will be heavily favored.

“They’re deep at every position,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “They’re fast. But if they need to play a physical game they will. We’re equipped to handle a physical game and we want to play that, but we’ve got guys who can skate, too.

“They’re good. They finished first in the league [113 points] for a reason and we’ve got our hands full. But if we play like we can I think we’ve got a chance.”

The Rangers, who won three of the four games against the Caps during the regular season, have not played since Saturday night when Carl Hagelin scored in overtime to eliminate Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. The Rangers held Evgeni Malkin without a point in that series, thanks to the suffocating play of the Rangers’ top defensive pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was also at his best, leading all playoff goalies with four or more games played with a 1.53 GAA, and finishing third in save percentage with a .939 mark.

Lundqvist has beaten Braden Holtby and the Capitals in thrilling seven-game playoff series in 2012 and 2013. Lundqvist and the Rangers last lost to the Caps in the playoffs in 2011, when Michal Neuvirth allowed just eight goals in a five-game victory.

“I don’t really care who we beat,” Holtby said Monday night in a euphoric Caps locker room when asked how much the Caps would like to beat the Rangers. “Obviously, you look at the standings and the way they play, you knew the chances are very good you’d have to go through them to get to the Final. Like any other team you prepare, you find what you can do to be successful against them and that’s what we’re going to do.”

In their five-game defeat of the Penguins, the Rangers were led offensively by forwards Derick Brassard [3 goals, 1 assist], Rick Nash [1 goal, 3 assists] and Derek Stepan and Hagelin [2 goals, 1 assist], along with McDonagh [1 goal, 3 assists, plus-3] and Girardi [3 assists, plus-4].

The Rangers should not be as physical as the Islanders, who delivered 317 hits in their seven-game war with the Capitals. The Rangers recorded 172 hits in their five games against the Penguins, led by forwards Tanner Glass and J.T. Miller [19 hits] and Chris Kreider [18]. By comparison, the Islanders’ Matt Martin [52], Cal Clutterbuck [40] and Johnny Boychuk [33] combined for 125 hits.

“We’ll see,” said Niskanen. “This was one of the more physical series I’ve ever been in, especially against their fourth line. But the Rangers have a few guys like that, too. We’ll talk more about that as the week goes on, but it’ll be a tough challenge.”

The Caps used Tuesday to rest their bruised bodies and will return to the ice on Wednesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where they hope to have center Eric Fehr, who was knocked out of the first-round series on a check by Clutterbuck in Game 3. 

RELATED: [Schedule set for Capitals' playoff war vs. Rangers]

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What’s Christmas like in North Pole, Alaska? Cold, says Pheonix Copley of his hometown

USA Today Sports

What’s Christmas like in North Pole, Alaska? Cold, says Pheonix Copley of his hometown

Ever wonder what Christmas at the North Pole is like? Just ask someone who’s been there like Capitals goalie Pheonix Copley.

Copley calls the North Pole home. North Pole, Alaska that is.

North Pole is a small town outside of Fairbanks (population of 2,232). Copley wears two candy canes on the bottom of his goalie mask in tribute to his hometown.

As you would expect, Christmas is a big deal back home, not just in December but year round. Santa Claus Lane cuts through the center of town and visitors can see the Santa Claus House located on St. Nicholas Drive.

“They definitely try and make it a theme in the town,” Copley said. “Light poles and stuff are candy canes, Christmas lights year round at places, businesses.”

Christmas itself, however, is more low-key for the people there than you would expect, according to Copley. As fun as the town name may be, there is one big drawback to December in North Pole: the weather.

“It's so cold up there, it's like not much really to do outside [at Christmas],” Copley said. “They do do ice sculptures and stuff so they go a little bit with it, but it's so cold and dark that not a whole lot going on up there.”

According to The Weather Channel, the forecast for Christmas day calls for a high of -8 degrees. That is a veritable heat-wave considering it is not supposed to get above -13 degrees in the five days leading up to Christmas. You can also expect there to be less than four hours of daylight.

That may sound miserable to some, but Copley always enjoyed making the trip home for the holidays.

“Especially growing up when I first started leaving, I was going home at Christmas and it was nice to see the whole family again and get to celebrate the holidays and stuff,” he said. “For myself, Christmas has always been a fun time. Just being from North Pole, I always get a lot of jokes and stuff about it.”

Now on the other side of the country and with only a few days between games, Copley will not make the long trip back home during the team’s Christmas break. Instead, he will remain in D.C. and, as he admitted, will enjoy a warmer Christmas.

But he still wouldn’t mind a little snow.


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The Capitals see so much more in Tom Wilson than just the physical play

The Capitals see so much more in Tom Wilson than just the physical play

The Capitals raised eyebrows over the summer by signing forward Tom Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract. That’s a hefty contract for a goon whose only contribution to the team are some big hits.

But general manager Brian MacLellan sees a lot more to Wilson’s game than just the physical play. In him, MacLellan sees a top-line line player who is a leader on and off the ice. That was evident during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup and that’s why the team made such a sizable commitment to him in the offseason.

Wilson has a certain reputation around the league because of his physical style of play and his past run-ins with the Department of Player Safety. But that only tells you part of the story. When you look at Wilson’s entire skillset and body of work, it soon becomes clear why the Capitals have so much faith in him.

Washington recognized Wilson’s potential early on, making him a first-round draft pick in the 2012 NHL draft.

“Our amateur scouts had a high opinion of him -- the skating, the physicality, the character – and I think they thought there was some upside there offensively that we could tap into,” MacLellan said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Washington. “He did score some at the junior level, but they thought he could get to a different level as he turned pro.”

But because of how he was utilized when he first entered the league, no one knew Wilson had that extra level to his game.

In need of a physical presence to plug into the lineup, head coach Adam Oates gave Wilson his NHL debut in the 2013 postseason. Rather than return him to his junior team the following season, the Caps elected to keep him in the NHL. Oates, however, only utilized him in a fourth-line enforcer role and that’s how Wilson’s reputation began to grow.

Wilson worked hard at developing other aspects of his game, but it was hard to show those with fourth line minutes. No one saw the work he was putting into his game, all they saw was highlights of fights or big hits.

“He came in originally as a fourth line energy player, might have started in the league a year or two early or not depending on your opinion,” MacLellan said.

Wilson’s real breakout season came in the latter half of the 2017-18 campaign when Barry Trotz elected to make him a top line player.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are two of the most talented offensive players in the NHL, but they are not nearly as good in their own zone. Rather than just load the top line with offensive skill and thus limit the situations in which it could be used, Trotz looked for someone who provide some defensive balance while also be able to keep up with the offensive skill of his line mates.

Wilson seemed like an odd choice initially, but only because most did not know how strong a skater he was. Most did not know his offensive upside. Most did not know the type of leader he was.

But the team did. It didn’t take long for the top line to take off with Wilson playing on the right wing.

“From the last 60 games and into the playoffs, I think his game hit a different level,” MacLellan said. “He played well on the first line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. [He] brings a lot to our team, brings a lot of energy to our team and I think at the point there in the playoffs that if we don’t have Tom Wilson, I don’t think we’re winning the Stanley Cup. He was that effective down in a couple of those series.”

If a general manager views a player as being that important to his team’s success, a big contract won’t be far behind.

It was a small sample size, but Wilson was only living up to the potential the Caps always knew he had and so a long-term deal seemed like a no-brainer.

“We felt confident and wanted him to be around here for as long as we could get him,” MacLellan said. “Both parties could have wanted a shorter term just to test the comfort level, test where he’s going to be skill wise and the impact he’s going to have on our team, but I think we were comfortable going term on him because we believe in the player, we believe in the person.”

“When the GM and the organization reach out and are willing to do a long-term thing, it’s pretty exciting and makes you feel good,” Wilson said. “That being said, it’s responsibility to continue to improve and help the team win because at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”

For more on Wilson the player and the person, be sure to check out our mini documentary “Tom Wilson: Marked Man” that will drop Wednesday exclusively on the MyTeams app!