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Rangers face another pair of stars: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) and

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) and center Nicklas Backstrom (19) pause on the ice during a break in the first period of a game Saturday, March 28, 2015, in Washington. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - It's not exactly a mirror image, but Rangers coach Alain Vigneault immediately pointed out one common challenge presented by the Penguins and Capitals: trying to contain a pair of superstars.

"We went from [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin to [Alex] Ovechkin and [Nicklas] Backstrom," Vigneault said Tuesday, two days before the Rangers host Game 1 of the Metropolitan Division finals against Washington. "We're playing another very strong opponent."

The Rangers held Malkin pointless in the five-game series, although Crosby contributed two goals and four points.

"Our preparation toward defending as a group will be similar to what we did against Pittsburgh," Vigneault said. "They tried to play a physical brand of hockey, Washington tries to play a physical brand of hockey. It's going to be intense, hard-fought, the type of series where you have to work for every inch."

In a very candid self-assessment, veteran Martin St. Louis, who will join leading scorer Rick Nash and Derick Brassard on the top line with Mats Zuccarello sidelined indefinitely with an undisclosed injury after being struck in the head with a shot in Game 5, said he was "hoping to have more of an impact on this series than I did in the first round."

The Rangers scored only 11 goals against the Penguins and St. Louis had one assist while playing on the third line. "I feel I can play better," the 39-year-old said, "and I'm hoping my best hockey is in front of me."

Vigneault appreciated that approach. "With Zukie being out, [St. Louis is] probably the most suited, as far as most offensively gifted, to play with both Brass and Rick. He's very demanding on himself and that's what I want at this time of year. That's what you want, players that want to do more."

The Capitals have size throughout the lineup, but St. Louis figured that can be countered. "Whoever we play, we've got to try and dictate the pace," St. Louis said. "For us, we've got to manage the puck so they don't get to use their size as much."

Several players are used to seeing the Capitals, whom they have faced in four of the last five years in the postseason. "A few Game 7s, a lot of overtime games, the three-overtimes was a beauty," Marc Staal recalled. "They just came off a big emotional win [against the Islanders], a pretty big high; they're going to be ready to go, so we've got to match that."

Derek Stepan, one of the Blueshirts who has skated against the Capitals in the spring since 2011, dismissed the Rangers' three wins in four regular-season games against Washington. "Throughout the year, teams kind of get into peaks and valleys," he said. "This time of the year, everyone's playing at their peak."

Notes & quotes:President Glen Sather and assistant general managers Jeff Gorton and Jim Schoenfeld were in Hartford Tuesday night for Game 4 of the AHL playoff series between the Wolf Pack and Providence Bruins to determine which forward will be called up Wednesday as a spare . . . Kevin Hayes moved into Zuccarello's spot on one of the power-play units . . . Defenseman Keith Yandle, who sat out practice the last two days with "a case of the sniffles," Vigneault joked, will practice Wednesday . . . Kevin Klein (broken arm, March 11) felt good and practiced for the second straight day.

New York Sports