NEW YORK - Marc Staal's vision remains blurred while the Rangers make his prospects for playing in the first-round deliberately fuzzy.
"I'm probably not going to be able to play tomorrow," the defenceman said after first starting to say that he couldn't say, not that anything disclosed about an injury at playoff time is worth much regardless.
"As I said before, there are good and bad days, keep taking it day by day, and hopefully it keeps getting better," Staal said.
He has been out since March 5, when a deflected shot by Kimmo Timonen
hit Staal in the eye, shutting down the Rangers' shut-down defenceman and complicating their chances of being the upper-tier team most thought they were capable of being. After sneaking into the playoffs with one game to spare, they now try to survive one game at a time by bottling Alex Ovechkin.
That job, beginning in Game 1 tonight in Washington, goes to Ryan McDonagh and either Dan Girardi or Michael Del Zotto, depending upon whether Rangers coach John Tortorella decides to put his best two remaining defensive eggs into one basket.
Whatever the combinations, whatever side of the rink Ovechkin roams -- "Doesn't matter, he's all over the place," Tortorella said -- the coach believes third-year defenceman McDonagh has grown into the responsibility of hounding the league's top scorer into another early round elimination.
"What has escalated [McDonagh] into being the player he is right now is if he makes a mistake in a shift, it never bothers him, he just goes out and plays again and is better the next shift," Tortorella said.
"His skating covers up for so many different things as far as positioning. That's the toughest position to play in our game and he is the full package."Ovechkin returns to form
Ovechkin is a ticking package who, disguised by then-coach Dale Hunter in a plain brown wrapper, scored three goals in seven second-round games against the Rangers a year ago. Despite managing only 15 as a team in seven games, the Rangers squeaked by, as they will try again with the same superb goalie, Henrik Lundqvist.
"I know [the Caps] can score," Lundqvist said on Wednesday as the Rangers, bored waiting to be the last series to begin, cut their practice short and hopped the plane for a fourth match against the Caps in five years. "Two years ago they were an offensive team and last year they were a defensive team and this year they are both."
Hunter, who by getting Ovechkin to play the whole rink, dethroned Boston by one goal a year ago, then lost to the Rangers by the same margin, resigned to go back to run his junior team in London. New coach Adam Oates sowed the old Alex for 32 goals in the 48 games
, 16 of them on a power play, which is the best reason to like Washington this time around.Special teams key for Rangers
The Rangers, who were a middle-of-the-pack 15th in penalty killing during the regular season, have one good pair in Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan, after which Tortorella is scrambling, not the only area of depth that is a concern. Ryan Clowe (suspected concussion) Brian Boyle (knee), Derek Dorsett (fractured clavicle), are all questionable, like Staal, to return in this round. The Rangers were the least penalized team in the league and likely will have to remain so to advance.
From a year ago, the Caps have changed mostly in style while the Rangers have undergone a huge metamorphosis in personnel, adding scoring star Rick Nash at the expense of effective second and third liners like Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, then trading the enigmatic Marian Gaborik
at the deadline to get Derick Brassard, Dorsett and John Moore, restoring some depth.
Their fourth line is small, and, as reflected in its ice time, not very good, which is hardly a formula for success in today's playoffs of all-out 40-second bursts. Plus, goalie Braden Holtby essentially matched Lundqvist a year ago, giving up those 15 goals to Lundqvist's 13.
Nash will have to score, as will Brad Richards, who picked it up the last two weeks after an incomprehensibly awful season. And McDonagh is going to have to be very good against an unchained Ovechkin, who looks like he is having fun again and has a score to settle from last year.
"You want to play against the best," McDonagh said. "He is the leading goal scorer in the league, a huge part of their team but he is making other players around him better.
"They have other guys scoring goals, too including [Mike] Green from the back end. The big thing is not to turn pucks over, make them defend, wear their defence down so they can't join the rush. Play our style and try to dictate."
If the regular season is any indication, the Rangers don't have as much depth to do that as a year ago, reason to like the Capitals in six.
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