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Rangers catching Capitals at their hottest

Rick Nash, center, returns to the bench following

Rick Nash, center, returns to the bench following his first-period goal against the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden. (April 27, 2013) Credit: Getty

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Throw out the 2-0-1 record against the Capitals this season. Forget outlasting Alex Ovechkin & Co. in last season's rough-and-tumble seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals.

For the Rangers, the opening round of the playoffs, which begin in Washington on Thursday, is a clean slate.

"We haven't seen them in the month of April,'' when the Capitals were 11-1-1, captain Ryan Callahan said, "so we can't really base it on our last performances against them. They're hot right now. I think we match up against each other pretty evenly. It's going to be a tough matchup.''

All of the Rangers provided the proper respect for the surging Capitals, who won the Southeast Division title and claimed the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, and agreed that although they are familiar with the franchise and the colors, having seen them in the postseason a lot recently, the players and style aren't identical.

"Even though you think you get to know a team or players, they always change over the years,'' Henrik Lundqvist said after practice Monday. "Four or five years, they were all about offense. Last year, it was definitely more about defense. This year, it's kind of a mix. I expect a tough series, but I see it as a great opportunity and a great challenge for us.''

Caps center Nicklas Backstrom sees the series as "payback'' for last spring, but Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi wasn't buying. "We're not going to start a war of words,'' he said. "There's no use for that. It doesn't matter what happened last year, or a couple years before that. We had a really solid April, as well: two teams at the top of their game.''

Coach John Tortorella didn't draw any comparisons, either. "It doesn't matter how many times we've played them,'' he said, but he conceded that the three days off before Game 1 changed his preparation.

"These practice days, when you're playing just one team, maybe for a couple of weeks, you're focused in on that team,'' Tortorella said. "During the season, more of it's focused on you, because you're playing different teams all through. We're still focusing on our game, that is our No. 1 priority, but it affords us the time to look at Washington and some of their tendencies.''

One of those tendencies is named Ovechkin, chosen April's first star by the NHL. The winger rolled in like a thunderstorm, compiling 14 goals and 22 points in 13 games, including four multigoal games.

"He's dynamic whatever side he's on, left or right,'' Girardi said. "We have our hands full with him.''

"Defense and goaltending'' was the mantra in the conference semifinals, defined by a triple-overtime thriller at Verizon Center that the Rangers won on Marian Gaborik's goal. "That summed it up, a marathon game,'' Girardi said. "The front of both nets are going to be key . . . what team can establish the forecheck and kind of control the tempo.''

Girardi and a dozen teammates have been through the playoff wars, but the Rangers have a handful of players with little or no postseason experience, including Rick Nash, who skated in only four playoff games (2008-09) in nine seasons with Columbus. "That's good and bad,'' Tortorella said. "You always want to get the experience, but sometimes innocence is better.''

Nash, 28, who has played in the Olympics, World Championships and All-Star Games, is hardly an innocent. "I'm not saying one word to him,'' Tortorella said. "This is where he wants to be. Sometimes other things come with the package of a star player. Not this guy. He just wants to play.''

New York Sports