NEW YORK -- One of the problems with playoff hockey is darned if a team doesn't have to come back every spring and attempt to repeat or improve upon past glories.
Year after year the Washington Capitals didn't mind the assignment since theirs was a less than impressive playoff history. In 10 series spread over seven seasons, they had won three, lost seven.
In 1990, however, the Caps beat the New Jersey Devils in six games, then brushed aside the New York Rangers in five. They were Patrick Division champs for the first time. Despite being swept by the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference final, the season was regarded as the club's most successful.
It is now time to try to improve upon that run and, dead ahead beginning tonight in Madison Square Garden (8:30 p.m., Ch. 20), is the team that to this day squeals that last year's series was an aberration -- the Rangers.
Off their performances of the last month, the Caps appear to be the ones on the rise, the team jumping a couple of places in the standings by going 9-3-3 in March. Meanwhile, the Rangers weren't only blowing first place, they barely held onto second and, if the season had gone another week or so (heaven forbid), they might have missed the starter's gun in the Stanley Cup Marathon altogether.
While winning just twice in their last dozen games, the Broadway Blues gave indication that all was not right in the clubhouse either, some of the star players taking pot shots at coach Roger Neilson after being benched for lack of production.
But, as anyone who follows hockey knows, a goal at just the right time can turn a team around almost instantaneously. The problem with the Rangers lately is they haven't been scoring much and Bernie Nicholls and John Ogrodnick have been cited as the reason.
"We're both big boys," Neilson said of his talk with Nicholls after he sat him out, "and we both realize we've got to beat Washington. That's more important than any other issue by far."
When compared with the other teams in the Patrick Division, the Capitals come off as Camp Friendly. Thing is, the Caps are a defense-oriented team, a huge plus in the playoffs, but the backline is hurting right now. Gone for a month is their second best defensive defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov (hamstring) and for tonight's game Al Iafrate (reason fuzzy).
The team is confident, nonetheless, coach Terry Murray explaining, "We feel we can draw on the success we had in the playoffs last year and I'm convinced we're a better team now than then."
The main reason for such thinking is goalie Don Beaupre, who has been nothing short of sensational for about a month and who pointed out, "Last year, we thought we could win. This year, we know we can."
John Druce, the star of last year's blitz of New York with nine goals in the five games, is hopeful of a fast start. "If we get the first goal, they might say, 'Here we go again,' and we can go from there."
After riding in first place most of the season while the Caps languished in fifth, much is expected of the Rangers, who are constantly reminded by their sweet-talking fans that they haven't won the Stanley Cup for more than half a century.
"The pressure is on them to win the first two at home," said a grinning Dino Ciccarelli. "All we have to do is split."
Washington's Channel 20 will carry the games in the Big Apple tonight, Friday and next Thursday with Home Team Sports doing games 3-4-6 Sunday, next Tuesday and Saturday a week. HTS has the Penguins-Devils game on a delayed basis tonight (11:30) and will be picking up two games on the alternate nights the Norris and Smythe divisions are playing.