For eliminating Penguins, Capitals rewarded with the best of NHL: Rangers STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

April 29, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

The Stanley Cup playoffs don't get any easier for the Washington Capitals on Sunday, when they face off against the New York Rangers, the NHL's No. 1 team in the regular season, in an Eastern Conference semifinal series at Madison Square Garden.

The seventh-seeded Caps barely had time to let their six-game ouster of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference quarterfinals sink in before having to think about New York.

"We did everything well, and we beat Pittsburgh, not just any team, and we did it even without our best players," Washington center Joe Juneau said. "We have to build on it.

"We've proved we can beat a very good team. Now, we have another good team in front of us, so we just have to play the same way. If we play that same way, we'll go through New York the same way."

After taking yesterday off, the Caps today will begin to formulate a game plan under the direction of coach Jim Schoenfeld.

The Caps, underdogs against the Penguins, again are cast in that role against the Rangers. But Rangers coach Mike Keenan said yesterday his team isn't going to be caught looking ahead.

"We're not overconfident, and we're not looking beyond the Caps," said Keenan, after his team's practice in Rye, N.Y. "We saw in the series with the Islanders that the regular-season record doesn't mean anything. It didn't mean anything in that series, and I doubt it will mean anything in this one. We have a leadership group on this team smart enough to know that, and they'll keep everyone's feet on the ground."

The Rangers eliminated the New York Islanders in four games after managing only one regular-season victory over them.

The Rangers have three players -- Brian Leetch, Mark Messier and Alexei Kovalev -- who were among the NHL's top 10 regular-season scorers.

During the past season, the Rangers dominated the series with Washington, 5-1.

An interesting footnote in the history of playoff series between the Caps and Rangers is that the underdog has won in each of the three meetings. New York advanced in the 1986 Patrick Division finals, and Washington moved on in the 1990 division finals and the 1991 division semifinals.

Washington's Kelly Miller, Mike Ridley and Kevin Hatcher are the only players on either team who have played in all of the postseason series between the Rangers and the Caps. And Miller and Ridley played for the Rangers in 1986, which means they've always been on the winning side.

"The Rangers are a great team," Miller said. "They looked awesome against the Islanders. . . . But, by the same token, we're playing real well. . . . Our Game 6 effort against Pittsburgh was one of the best team efforts I've seen since I've been wearing a Caps uniform [eight years]."

In the Penguins series, the Caps, led by Dave Poulin, held Mario Lemieux to just four goals.

And despite injuries and penalties that sidelined defenseman Sylvain Cote (two games), center Dale Hunter (four games), and Hatcher for 45 minutes of Game 6 because of a flagrant high-sticking penalty, the Caps also held Rick Tocchet and Jaromir Jagr to two goals each and Kevin Stevens to one.

"At different times in the series, everyone has to chip in," Poulin said. "I've been in the semifinals six times and the finals three times, and in each instance I don't think our team played poorly. I think we ran out of players. One of the encouraging things to me is that I don't think we'll run out of players with this team. This is the deepest team I've ever been on."

NOTES: The Caps yesterday sent D Todd Nelson to the Portland Pirates, who begin their best-of-seven, second-round American Hockey League playoff series tonight in Maine against the Adirondack Red Wings.

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