Washington Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld sat at one end of the locker room beside Dimitri Khristich, joking with his players before practice yesterday at Piney Orchard Ice Arena.
A little later, he got up and, like a good comedian, worked the room and left them laughing.
Veteran center Dave Poulin watched his coach go out the door and smiled.
"I don't think there are many similarities between our coach and [New York Rangers coach] Mike Keenan," said Poulin, who played for Keenan when he was a first-year coach in Philadelphia in 1984. "They're different personalities."
If there is one trait that describes Keenan, it is intensity.
"It's a common thread through his entire career," said Poulin, whose seventh-seeded team faces the top-seeded New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night in Game 1 of a best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Some critics think that in the past Keenan's intensity has left the Rangers worn out come playoff time. But Poulin doesn't think that will happen this year, for several reasons.
"New York made some good moves before the trading deadline that helped their depth," he said. "Adding [Craig] MacTavish, Glenn Anderson, Brian Noonan and [Stephane] Matteau helped them a great deal."
The traits most often noticed in Schoenfeld since he joined the Caps in late January are sensitivity to his players and a positive nature.
"The only similarity I see is that they don't let outside considerations distract them or affect their decision-making," said Poulin, who has been a key to the Caps' postseason defense. "They do what's best for their hockey teams. They ignore outside considerations more than a lot of other coaches."
Part of what Schoenfeld was doing yesterday was formulating a game plan for the Rangers series.
Going into the quarterfinal series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, which the Caps won in six games, he listed five ingredients needed for victory. All of them were physical undertakings.
Yesterday, preparing for the Rangers, Schoenfeld was attempting to deal with the mental part of the game as well as the physical. Heading his list:
* Eliminate the production of defensemen Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov. Finish checks on them, eliminate their space and time, and once they move the puck to someone else, close in to prevent them from getting the puck back.
* Have respect for Mark Messier's ability "but no respect for his person."
* Commit to not being outworked by Adam Graves.
* Don't take lazy penalties (hooking, holding or interference) or stupid penalties (too many men, retaliation or unsportsmanlike conduct). * And, finally, the Caps must believe they are as good as the Rangers.
"We can't be intimidated by their accomplishments," Schoenfeld said. "We have to believe we have just as much right to win the Cup as they do. We can't be in awe of Messier, Leetch, Graves or any of the rest of them. They're hockey players, just like us."
The Caps' self-confidence grew throughout the Penguins series, which started well, with Washington winning Game 1 on the road. No doubt the Caps would like to go into New York and come out with a victory in Game 1 tomorrow.
But Schoenfeld isn't talking about a must win.
"If you're belief isn't real and you need to win to believe, then it's incredibly important," Schoenfeld said. "It's easy to believe when everything is going your way. The question is: Do we really believe?
"I think our power of believing was demonstrated in Game 6. We had lost Game 5 and our captain, Kevin Hatcher, got tossed out and we faced a 5-on-3 disadvantage against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and our players gutted it out . . . That's believing. Not talk, but belief."
NOTES: D Calle Johansson had a complete checkup on his leg. He was struck in a nerve behind his knee near the end of Game 6. Schoenfeld said Johansson was having trouble moving his lower leg and the team wanted to see the test results before jumping to conclusions. "It might be something that wears off, we'll see," Schoenfeld said . . . C Dale Hunter (hip flexor) appears ready to return tomorrow.