The Washington Capitals host the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon in Game 4 of their second-round matchup. The teams and their fans have had an extra day to digest all the extra hockey on Wednesday night, and everyone is probably anxious to get right back to skating, checking, shooting, shouting, yelling, and the like.
Game 4 poses an interesting situation for the Caps, as much for the result of Game 3 as anything else. History is a guide in such things, because while these Caps are unlike those who might have played, oh, 30 years ago, there are trends over time that seem to transcend the changes in rosters.
And that brings us to Game 3. The Caps lost a 2-1 decision in excruciating fashion, a three-overtime affair in which they certainly had their chances. But perhaps it is all for the best in the end. The Caps have taken 2-1 leads in games into Game 4 in four of the last seven playoff series in which they played. They lost three of those series (Tampa Bay in 2003, Pittsburgh in 2009, and Montreal in 2010). The exception was last year’s opening round series against the Rangers. Winning that Game 3 – or more to the point, losing it – seems not to have mattered much, at least to the Caps in recent years.
As Game 4 approaches, though, some things are becoming clear. One is that the Caps have started well, if not well off. In three first periods so far the Caps have out-shot the Rangers, 31-24. But they have managed goals in the first period in only one game, two goals scored in the first period of Game 2. Not coincidentally, that is the game they won in this series so far.
Conversely, the Rangers have been more productive late in games, outshooting the Caps narrowly (21-20 in the third period of games so far), but outscoring them 3-1.
The Caps have taken a one-goal lead only twice in this series. The scored the first goal (and the second) in Game 2, and gave the lead back. They would take back that lead in Game 2 and hold it for the final 7:27 of the contest.
On the other hand, the Rangers have taken one-goal leads three times (not counting the triple-overtime winner in Game 3) and surrendered them twice. In Game 1 the Rangers scored first but surrendered that lead to the Caps. They would regain that lead 13 minutes in to the third period and tack on another goal in a 3-1 win, the only time so far this spring the Caps have not finished a game with a one-goal margin, good or bad. In Game 3 they scored first, then let it slip away less than five minutes later. No one-goal lead in this series is safe, but…
The team that gets that first one goal lead – the one that scores first – wins. It has held true in each of the three games so far. What this suggests is that the games are so closely fought, so physically and mentally taxing, that a one goal deficit has the appearance of a mine shaft the team that is behind is trying from which to escape. They haven’t been able to use that foothold of a tie regained to add to the goal total before the other team takes a lead again (or scores that overtime winner).
Neither team has yet managed to impose its will on the other for sustained lengths of time in this series. Perhaps it is a product of these teams looking like mirror images of one another in style. The Caps come later to this, having had to learn to play this way over the last few months under Dale Hunter. For the Rangers it is the style for which they became known since John Tortorella became head coach.
As the series hits the mid-way point, the matter might now boil down to whether the Caps, who have subordinated “skill” (and the risk it sometimes bears in chance-taking), can get enough production out of their superior skill players in the ice time available to them. That they have not so far is the difference in this series – the “Core Four” (Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green) is a combined 1-2-3, minus-3 through three games. Only Alexander Semin has an even-strength point, assisting on John Carlson’s goal in Game 3.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
New York: Henrik Lundqvist
Henrik Lundqvist is 5-3, 2.11, .933, with one shutout in Games 4 of the post season in his career. But the wild card for him in this game will be the fact that he has logged the second highest minute total among goalies (the Caps’ Braden Holtby is first), and while there is the matter of the likes of defensemen Ryan McDonagh playing more than 53 minutes in Game 3 and Marc Staal playing almost 50 minutes, Lundqvist played more than one-sixth of his entire minute total in these playoffs in Game 3 (114:37 of 656:18). Lundqvist has had stinkers in the two playoff series in which he has faced the Caps – allowing four goals twice in the 2009 playoff series (both after allowing one or fewer goals in the previous game) and a five-spot after his second 4-0 loss, and allowing four goals to the Caps in Game 4 of last year’s playoffs after holding the Caps to a pair in the previous game.
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom
Nicklas Backstrom has not been a factor in any game so far in this series, save for his faceoff win in Game 2 that led directly to Alex Ovechkin’s game-winning power play goal. In his last 21 playoff games dating back to the opening round of the 2010 series against Montreal, Backstrom is 1-6-7, even. It is no coincidence that the Caps are 8-13 in those games. If the Caps are going to right things in this series, Backstrom is going to have to be heard from.
1. Special teams. The Caps are 1-for-10 on the power play. They have 16 shots on goal in 15:45 of power play ice time. But those shots have an odd feel to them. Alex Ovechkin has five of those shots, all of them in Game 2 (in which he has his power play goal). It is a power play that looks good for moments, awful at other times. This is where the Caps deeper skill set needs to assert itself.
2. Calm. That might be the most frequently used word in describing the Caps so far in the playoffs. The occasional running around aimlessly in the offensive zone and cluelessly in the defensive zone has been absent. It has been what allows them to play effectively in close games.
3. Score first. Of course, but in this game it might mean just that much more. The grinding nature of this series has made even one-goal leads look large, especially the first one. Both teams have shown an ability to come back from it, but not to overtake it. Get that lead early, and maybe the Rangers will then have to deal just the slightest bit with all that skating their top defensemen did the other night.
In the end, the Caps have done what they had to do to play “playoff hockey.” No one could say of this team that they aren’t playing the “right way” (right R.J.?). But they do need to get just that little bit more from the Core Four – a skill set the Rangers cannot match. At the start of the season, George McPhee noted how this is their team. Well, now it the time to take ownership.
Capitals 3 – Rangers 2