By IRA PODELL
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK - On the first off day of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, it was easy to see which club jumped out on top in the opener.
The top-seeded Rangers held an optional practice Sunday, a day after their 3-1 victory at home over seventh-seeded Washington. The Capitals had everyone on the ice at Madison Square Garden, and lined them up in quite a curious manner.
Alexander Semin, who had three goals for Washington in its first-round upset of defending Stanley Cup champion Boston, skated as a fourth-liner Sunday after he took two penalties in the series-opening loss to the Rangers. Semin was on a line with Mike Knuble and Keith Aucoin, but it might have just been a practice ploy by Capitals coach Dale Hunter and not a predictor of what might occur Monday night in Game 2.
"Just mixing the lines up," Hunter said after practice.
Semin was called for slashing in the first period to negate the rest of the Capitals' first power play. Hunter seemed to absolve that penalty on Sunday because Semin was trying to play the puck when he committed the foul. The other - retaliation tripping after he was slashed by Rangers captain Ryan Callahan - was understandable in Hunter's mind, but one Semin just can't afford to take.
"Both of them should have went," Hunter said. "It was a cross-check (by Callahan) originally. You just can't retaliate. He called one, he could have easily called two.
"It's up to the referees, it's his call. It's one of those things, he did get cross-checked but that's the way hockey is. You have to be smart on the ice."
That was one of the messages the Capitals were focusing on heading into Game 2. They also lost the opening game to the Bruins in the first round - a 1-0 overtime heartbreaker - but rebounded quickly and went home all even in the best-of-seven series.
A good performance Monday against the Rangers would put the Capitals in the same spot and wrest home-ice advantage away from New York.
"We've got to go out right away and play our best game," forward Marcus Johansson said. "We can't wait for anything to happen. We have to go out and make something happen - get a good start, get a good feeling and take it from there."
Washington held the Rangers to only 14 shots in Game 1, but goals by rookie Chris Kreider and Brad Richards 90 seconds apart in the third period turned a 1-1 game into a 3-1 hole.
The Capitals were also frustrated on the offensive side, mustering only 18 shots against the Rangers and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Washington is already trying to deal with getting pucks past the Rangers, who thrive on blocking shots. When they do penetrate the defense, the Capitals still need to find a way to get shots to elude Lundqvist.
"We have to be a lot more desperate," forward Joel Ward said. "They didn't get a whole lot of chances, either, so that is a positive we take out of it.
"(Lundqvist) is a good goalie, but he is human. They block a lot of shots and obviously he's a great goalie, a Vezina candidate, but if we apply enough pressure at least you give yourself a chance. The only way to score is to get pucks on net."
The Capitals also are adept at limited scoring chances and keeping pucks away from young goalie Braden Holtby.
Both teams blocked 15 shot attempts in the opener, and only the Rangers had more blocks in the first round than the Capitals.
"It's a new series now and the stakes go up again," Knuble said. "We've got to make sure we're working that much harder to get shots to the net. You get used to a seven-game series, working at a certain pace and a certain way of doing things to generate shots. Well, maybe it's going to be a little bit different now with a different set of defense.
"This defense takes a ton of pride in blocking shots and they know they've got a world-class goalie behind them. We're going to have to upgrade our offensive work ethic and work that much harder to score goals."
Because of that, Holtby knows he has to be better than he was in Game 1.