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Rangers a very different opponent than Islanders

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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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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.

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Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

There was no tougher critic on Matt Niskanen’s Game 5 performance on Saturday than Niskanen himself.

Niskanen and his defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov, were on the ice for all three of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s three goals in the Capitals’ 3-2 loss. That was striking given the Orlov-Niskanen duo is typically Washington’s best defensive pair.

That was not the case on Saturday and Niskanen took full responsibility afterward.

“First three goals are all my fault,” Niskanen said. “I had a tough first 20:30 so I've got to be better next game.”

Pretty much no one played the first goal right.

The goal came just 19 seconds into the game. Orlov turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Evgeny Kuznetsov looked like he could have gotten the puck, but instead played the body of Cedric Paquette. Niskanen stepped up at the blue line, but the Lightning got the puck past him creating a short rush that beat Braden Holtby who was way too far back in the crease.

Yes, Niskanen got caught a bit high, but he was just as at fault as Orlov, Kuznetsov and Holtby.

The second goal happened because Steven Stamkos tripped Orlov to create a turnover and it wasn’t called.

Niskanen got in between Ondrej Palat and the puck, but Palat beat both him and Holtby on the shot. Not sure I would put this one on Niskanen.

The third goal…well, that one was a bad play by Niskanen.

When you go one-on-one with a player, a defenseman cannot allow that player to turn the corner. That’s especially true when that player is defenseman Anton Stralman who is not exactly gifted with blazing speed. This was just a complete misplay.

Regardless of how many goals were strictly on Niskanen, that’s not the point. This was a message not so much to the media but to the team. That message was this: This one’s on me, I will be better next game.

Leaders always take responsibility. Niskanen is taking the blame here and saying he will be better in the hopes the team around him will be better as well.

They will need to be to win Game 6.

“A lot of people counted us out when we were down 0-2 in the first round,” Niskanen said. “Things got hard in the last series where we could have melted and we just kept playing. So that's what we've got to do again, bring our best effort for Game 6 at home, win a game and then we'll go from there.

“But we're focused on bringing our best game of the season for Game 6 and we'll be ready to go.”

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