The hardest game to win in sports is the deciding game in any playoff series. Just ask the 2008/2009 New York Rangers who held a commanding three-games-to-one lead against Washington before watching the Capitals rise up off the ice to win Game 7.

This year marks the sixth time the Rangers and Capitals have faced off in the playoffs – with the Capitals holding a three series to two lead. The first playoff showdown was in the Patrick Division Finals (aka Second Round) in 1986 as the Blueshirts overcame an 8-1 loss in Game 2 to win the series in six games.

I bring up the 1985/1986 Rangers because this year’s team is very similar to that one that beat Washington. The 1986 team did not feature a big scorer during the regular season as rookie Mike Ridley paced the team with 65 points (22 goals – which was second to Bob Brooke’s 24).

That team featured six players who scored 20 or more goals – including veteran Pierre LaRouche who has 20 in 18 games after being loaned out to the AHL’s Hershey Bears for 32 games as Coach Ted Sator favored a defensive style.

The Rangers, who would eventually lose the Eastern Conference Finals to Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in five games, were lead by nine players who were 24 or younger with three years or less NHL experience: Mike Allison, Brooke, Jan Erixon, Kelly Miller, James Patrick, Ridley, Tomas Sandstrom and John Vanbiesbrouck.

Some fans believe the Rangers are playing with “house money” given that they were thisclose away from missing the playoffs. Fortunately, the Rangers are not going to take this stance.

“I expect to win, and that’s the expectation of our team,” Brandon Prust commented to Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “I believe we have the character, confidence and work ethic throughout our lineup to take care of our business in this series against a very good team.

“To everybody else we’re underdogs, but we go in there thinking we can handle any team in the NHL, because we’ve proved that during the season.”

The Rangers-Capitals series shapes up as a chance for redemption. The Rangers, as a team, have a chance to redeem themselves for allowing a three-games-to-one series lead slip through their fingers when they lost to the Capitals in 2009.

Veterans Chris Drury and Marian Gaborik also have a chance to redeem themselves on a personal level.

For Drury, the 2010/2011 season was a wash due to a myriad of injuries, but his inspiration paid off in his first game back when he scored to tie up the Devils game. While Drury can’t replace Ryan Callahan’s offense or the bulldog-like attitude he brings, the captain does bring the ability to play defense/kill penalties and, most importantly, adds another faceoff option to go along with Brandon Dubinsky.

Gaborik has also labored with injuries this season, and it is possible that he is not completely recovered from his shoulder, groin and concussion injuries that cost him 20 games this season. However, since NHL teams treat injuries like the plans for the Normandy invasion, we may never know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.

While Gaborik’s offense has taken a hit as the Rangers have had to grind out more games, his ability to get off quick shots must be taken advantage of – in other words – Gaborik has to think and look shot every time his the offensive zone. If he does, he could pull a “LaRouche” who scored 8 goals and 9 assists in 16 playoff games.

Everyone is pretty much in agreement as to what the Rangers have to do to win this series. It is a given that that Henrik Lundqvist (11-6-2 versus Washingon) has to play like The King in order for the offensively-challenged Rangers to win. Given their struggles offensively, the Blueshirts must win the battle of the special teams. Keeping Alexander Ovechkin off the core sheet (only two assists in the four regular season games) is also a must.

The Rangers won the season series from the Capitals winning three of four (including one in a shootout). Captain Chris Drury realizes that the playoffs are an entirely different story than the regular season.

“I’ve been on teams that have done well in the series and lost in the playoffs, and vice versa,” Drury related to reporters on a conference call. “To me, it’s a whole new season and something we can learn from, having played against them and had success in the year. Ultimately, it is a totally different season, different animal, and the last few weeks we know they’ve done different things to have success. We’re going to have to be ready, no matter what happened in the regular season.”

However, the games most people remember are the 7-0 shellacking the Rangers put on Washington on December 12 and the 6-0 dismantling of the Capitals in Washington on February 25. Both of those games will go a long way in determining the winner of this series.

Following the December loss, the Capitals realized that they had to address their problems in the defensive zone. As a result, Coach Bruce Boudreau changed the team’s focus from its trademark offensive nature to one that centered on keeping the puck out of the net – a most daunting in-season task.

“It was a dramatic change,” Capitals GM McPhee told Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post. “And changing systems in the middle of the season is dangerous, because if it doesn’t work, you have players who are confused. Your system of play has to become ingrained. It has to become second nature. You can’t go on the ice thinking about a system because then the game’s going to be going by you.”

The changed seemed to work in the interim as the Capitals pulled out of a nosedive and posted a 6-1-3 record in their next 10 games.

The February loss also had a profound effect on Washington. It was the last game that Mike Green played after suffering a concussion on a hit from Derek Stepan. Green returns to the Caps lineup for the first time in the series opener.

That loss also forced GM McPhee to start looking for help for his team as he reeled in Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman before the NHL trade deadline. Wideman helped fill in for Green and Tom Poti who has been out of the lineup since late January with a lower body injury. Wideman, who had 10 goals on the year (9PPG) is out of the lineup and is listed as week-to-week due to a leg hematoma and compartment syndrome.

That 6-0 loss is also significant because Michal Neuvirth, who is making the Game 1 start, was in goal for that game. To be fair, he was in goal for Washington’s lone win a 5-3 victory on November 9 that is remembered for being the game when Derek Boogaard scored his first goal in 234 games.

In the end, that 6-0 loss was the springboard for the furious rush Washington put on to close the season as they went 16-2-1 in their final 19 games.

Inevitably, this series is going to come down to how well the Rangers execute their game plan and the team remembering, with apologies to Herb Brooks, that they are not talented enough to win on talent alone. The Rangers must live up to their Larry Brooks nickname of “Black-and-Blueshirts”. When the Rangers play their game to perfection, they are a hard team to beat. Their 21-16-3 record against playoff teams and their gritty win against Philadelphia and Boston in back-to-back games show what the team can accomplish. However, when they are off their game, then you are faced with clunkers like the Senators, Islanders and Thrashers games.

One telling stat is both teams ability to put games away when they hold the lead after two periods. The Rangers were 29 for 29 when entering the third period with a lead and the Capitals were 29-0-3. One of those shootout losses was to the Rangers with Martin Biron in goal.

Granted the Rangers task would be a little bit easier if Callahan were healthy and in the lineup, but you might as well wish for a return of a vintage Mark Messier and Brian Leetch as well. However, the one thing we have learned about this Rangers team is that they have a remarkable capacity to stare adversity in it face and use it as a rallying point – which is a great asset come the playoffs when teams seem to face adversity during every shift.

It is the Rangers ability to confront and overcome adversity that should lead them to a hard-fought win in seven games. The Blueshirts will get a huge break with a couple of extra days off during the series in which they can rest the bumps and bruises that are sure to come.

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