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Leonard: Rangers-Islanders not to be as Capitals come again

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Henrik Lundqvist gives Carl Hagelin a hug after the Rangers beat the Penguins. Up next is another very familair foe - the Washington Capitals.Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News

Henrik Lundqvist gives Carl Hagelin a hug after the Rangers beat the Penguins. Up next is another very familair foe – the Washington Capitals.

Not again.

New York had clamored all season for one final Rangers-Islanders playoff series this spring before the Isles left the Coliseum for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Local hockey fans were one Islanders win away from realizing that dream.

But then Monday night, Washington eliminated the Islanders in a Game 7 first-round defeat at the Verizon Center and so the Rangers somehow, maddeningly, have drawn the Capitals in a playoff series for the fifth time since 2009.

Did you enjoy watching the Rangers and Penguins decide all five games of their first-round series by only one goal? Did you relish the Blueshirts’ four victories by an identical score of 2-1 Did you mind the overtime wins in Games 4 and 5, recalling from last spring’s Stanley Cup Final how the result easily can go the opposite way?

Well, get used to all of it – all of it, that is, except for the length of the series. These games are always close and low-scoring, but on top of that, three of the Rangers’ and Capitals’ four playoff series since 2009 have gone seven games.

“I think playing Washington, because we’ve had so many series the past few years, it would be a great series and a great battle,” Henrik Lundqvist said after Monday afternoon’s practice in Greenburgh as he prepared to watch Game 7 of Isles-Caps.

In 2009, second East seed Washington beat the seventh-seeded Rangers in the first round in seven games. In 2011, the top-seeded Caps ran the eighth-seeded Rangers out in five. The Blueshirts, though, won their next two meetings, both in seven games:

The top-seeded Rangers team beat the seventh-seeded Capitals in the 2012 second round. And in the 2013 first-round, the sixth-seeded Blueshirts knocked out third-seeded Washington, only to get blown out of the water by the Boston Bruins, which led to the firing of coach John Tortorella.

That, there, is the best reason to hope for a fresh start in this ninth all-time postseason meeting between two true rivals, deadlocked at four series wins apiece: The Rangers and Capitals may meet in the playoffs annually, but the Alain Vigneault-coached Rangers and the Barry Trotz-led Capitals never have crossed paths with the stakes this high.

Tortorella memorably was the Rangers’ coach in all four of those recent series, including a water bottle toss into the stands in a 4-0, Game 5 loss in Washington in 2009 that drew a one-game suspension, and his unforgettable “stop coaching” edict following a 2-1 Game 6 loss in 2012 in the same building.

The Caps, meanwhile, ran through the coaching Rolodex: Bruce Boudreau beat the Rangers in 2009 and 2011, Dale Hunter lost to Torts in 2012, and Adam Oates failed in 2013.

This season, Vigneault’s Rangers are a fast team that frequently creates dangerous offense off the rush, led by Rick Nash. They won the Presidents’ Trophy, established a presence down low on the forecheck against the Penguins, and boast the best defense in hockey, as well as Lundqvist in goal. They won three of four regular season meetings with the Capitals, outscoring Washington 13-10.

Trotz’s Caps, in comparison, have an improved defense led by an impressively steady Matt Niskanen. That complements a reborn Alex Ovechkin, a Hart Trophy candidate, All-Star snub center Nicklas Backstrom, and a heavy, physical club featuring names like Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward that feel like they’ve been on this team forever.

It’s true, of course, that the new coaching matchup does not guarantee a higher-scoring series.

Vigneault’s Canucks outscored Trotz’s Predators only 14-11 in a six-game series that included one overtime decision and another in double-OT during Vancouver’s run to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final as Presidents’ Trophy winners.

In this series, though, everyone knows they are in for a brutal physical series that demonstrates no matter the NHL’s alignment – bracket or no bracket – these rivals seem destined to meet this time of year.

Really, the most miraculous element of the Blueshirts’ run to the Cup Final last season – perhaps more than their comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against Pittsburgh or their 2-1-0 record in Montreal to exorcise some Bell Centre demons – was the fact that they didn’t have to go through Washington.

By this point, given their recent histories, it almost wouldn’t feel right if the Rangers were to win a championship without dispatching the Capitals along the way.

After all, they did it in 1994: Second round, Rangers-Capitals, the Rangers won in five.

And the rest is history.

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