NEW YORK (AP) The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals are becoming one of the NHL's annual spring attractions.
Four the fourth time in five years and the fifth time in seven, the Eastern Conference clubs are meeting in the playoffs. If history is any indicator, expect a long series. The last two have gone seven games, with the Rangers winning both in 2012 and `13.
This year's best-of-seven conference semifinal gets underway Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
''It's just a rivalry between the two teams, facing each other,'' Rangers center Derick Brassard said. ''We have the same core, they have the same core. We know a lot of their players. They know a lot of our players. It's going to be a tough series. It's going to be a big test for us to see how big we want to compete. I think this team is ready for another challenge.''
New York, which won the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top team in the regular season and knocked off Pittsburgh in five games in the first round, beat Washington three of four times in the regular season. The last win was on the final day of the regular season and it temporarily denied Washington home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Caps got it later that night when the Islanders lost to Columbus, and they were at home Monday night when they beat the Isles 2-1 in Game 7 of their first-round series.
''They've changed. We've changed,'' Capitals forward Joel Ward said. ''The only things that haven't changed are the buildings and the uniforms. They've got a new coach. We've got a new coach. They've got new players. We've got new players. So it's a whole different ballgame.''
When the teams last met in the playoffs, Adam Oates coached the Capitals and John Tortorella led the Rangers.
Barry Trotz is finishing his first season as the Capitals coach. He has combined the team's physical play with an aggressive forecheck, transforming them into one of the league's top defensive teams.
Vigneault's Rangers are a high-tempo north-south team that likes to get the puck out of its end and go on the attack.
''We can't try to play their game - they have an extremely fast team, they have great transition,'' Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. ''We don't want to get into that type of a run-and-gun game. We just want to stick to our identity.''
Beating the Caps starts with limiting Ovechkin. The league's leading goal scorer had five of his 53 goals against the Rangers this season. He has 22 goals in 39 career regular-season games against New York, and 10 goals in 26 career playoff games.
In New York, defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi will be his constant companions.
''I think we have the perfect defensemen core to play him, and I think he knows that as well,'' Brassard said. ''I think he knows McDonagh and Girardi pretty well from now on, and those guys enjoy playing against him because he brings the best out of them. We just have to play him tight and we have to make sure when he is on the power play we are aware where he is at all the time. He has that big shot and it seems like he wants to be a difference this year.''
HANK VS. HOLTS
Holtby has played in 14 playoff games against the Rangers with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. He is coming off a career season with 41 wins, nine shutouts and .923 save percentage.
Henrik Lundqvist, who missed two months with a vascular injury before returning late in the season, allowed only one goal in each of the Rangers' four wins over Pittsburgh. His best game was in the clincher in Game 5 when he saved 37 of 38 shots.
''I've never been a guy who really sees a heated rivalry between a goalie on one side or the other,'' Holtby said. ''It's team-wise that you focus on more. But I like playing against guys who do great things professionally, and not only their work on the ice, but off the ice - good humans. And obviously Henrik is.''
DEPTH IS GOOD
With Mats Zuccarello sidelined indefinitely after being hit in the head with a shot, the Rangers top line will have a new right wing - Martin St. Louis. Not too shabby. Take out a fan favorite and replace him with a third-liner who was the NHL's leading scorer in 2003-04. St. Louis had 21 goals and 31 assists in 72 games this season. Look for James Sheppard to play on the fourth line. Also expect defenseman Kevin Klein to return to the Rangers lineup after missing nearly two months with a broken arm.
The Capitals had 60 goals on the power play this season with Ovechkin netting 25. In the opening round Washington was 2 of 13 with the extra skater against the Islanders. The key for the Rangers will be to stay out of the penalty box. They did a good job against the Penguins, taking 13 minors and allowing just two goals. New York converted on 3 of 20 power-plays chances. The Capitals were outstanding on the penalty kill in the opening round, not allowing a goal in 14 chances.
Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the game winner in Game 7 against the Islanders and had three goals in the series. The 22-year-old Russian looks ready for prime time after a quiet 10-goal regular season.
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.