“Just when you think you got momentum, you lose it.”
Pierre McGuire uttered those words when Mathieu Perreault scored the Washington Capitals’ first goal last night, but it might have described the series, and not in a good way for the Caps. The momentum the Capitals might have had in winning Games 1 and 2 was lost last night as the New York Rangers tied their series at two games apiece with a 4-3 win at Madison Square Garden.
The Caps were chasing the Rangers all night, it seemed, allowing the game’s first two goals. The first one was the result of a ghastly miscue by Braden Holtby, who drifted out to the faceoff circle to his left to play a loose puck late in the first period. He tried to wire a pass through the middle to Eric Fehr at the red line along the wall on the right side. Taylor Pyatt got in the way to knock the puck down, then all hell broke loose. Holtby tried to scramble back to his crease as Carl Hagelin scooped up the puck and fired at the Caps’ net. John Carlson blocked the shot with a skate, but it caromed out to Brad Richards as Holtby was sliding across his crease. By the time Richards fired, Holtby slid all the way through, and Richards had nothing be empty net to shoot at. He did not miss, and the Rangers had the lead.
New York would double their lead mid-way through the second period when Carl Hagelin got a goal of his own, firing a shot from the left wing faceoff circle high over Holtby’s glove on the far side. The Rangers would lose that two-goal lead before the second period was through. Mathieu Perreault got the Caps on the board when he finished some of Joel Ward’s hard work. Ward took a feed from Jason Chimera in the neutral zone and skated down the left wing. He skated defenseman Michael De Zotto to his knees, then circled around him to the Ranger net. His shot was paddled aside by goalie henrik Lundqvist, but the puck ended up on the stick of Perreault at the left post. Perreault knocked it in, and the Caps were within a goal.
Troy Brouwer tied the game with 17.1 seconds left in the second period. It started with some good forechecking pressure from Mike Ribeiro denying the Rangers the chance to clear the puck from their zone. Mike Green kept the puck in at the right point and fed it to Brouwer at the top of the right wing circle. Brouwer cut to the middle, split Anton Stralman and Derek Stepan, and backhanded the puck past Lundqvist’s blocker to knot the score at two apiece going into the second intermission.
The Rangers restored their two goal lead early in the third period. The first came on a power play, Dan Girardi taking a nice backhand feed from Derick Brassard and firing a slap shot past Holtby’s blocker when it appeared Brouwer backed into Holtby’s line of sight to screen his own goaltender.
Stepan made it 4-2 six minutes into the period, finishing some nifty passing in deep. Ryan Callahan picked up a loose puck at the top of the right wing circle and took advantage of numbers to feed Stepan to Holty’s right. Stepan fed Hagelin at the other side ot the low slot, then Hagelin fed it back. Holtby had no chance to prevent Stepan from burying the puck in the back of the net for a new two-goal lead.
Less than 90 seconds later, Perreault got the Caps back within one when he proved that getting in the way can have its charms. Karl Alzner kept the puck in the Ranger zone at the left point, then let loose a wrist shot toward the Ranger net. As the puck was making its way toward the net, Perreault was cutting across the middle. The puck struck him, hit a post, and settled behind Lundqvist to make it 4-3 at 7:31 of the period.
That would be as close as the Caps would get, though. The Caps would get nine more shots on goal in the last 12:29, but Lundqvist stopped them all, and the series was tied, the momentum the Caps had coming to New York now in the Rangers’ hands as the Caps were leaving town.
-- How does John Moore not get a penalty for cross-checking Jason Chimera to the ice after Perreault’s goal?
-- The Caps are showing Henrik Lundqvist to be mortal, but they are not taking advantage of that good fortune because their own defense is getting broken down by the Rangers in deep. New York is getting too many chances – such as that which led to the game-winning goal – in close.
-- The Caps have lost two straight third periods by a 2-1 score and lost the games as a result. This has been one of those under-the-radar issues for the Caps this season. They are now 4-6-1 (regular season plus playoffs) when tied after 40 minutes of play (1-2 in this series).
-- Wouldn’t you know it. The Caps get secondary scoring, and the top line can’t get a point… ok, one in the last two games. Joel Ward has three assists over the last two games. Mathieu Perreault is 2-1-3 (the two goals being scored last night). Jason Chimera has a pair of assists. Jay Beagle has as many goals (one) as the top line has scored in the last two games (one – Nicklas Backstrom in Game 3). John Erskine has more assists (one) than does the top line over the last two games.
-- The top line of Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Marcus Johansson was held to four shots on goal and no points last night. Alex Ovechkin did not have an even-strength shot on goal, only one on a power play.
-- The second line was almost as unproductive. Troy Brouwer did have a goal, but it was the only point on the Brouwer-Mike Ribeiro-Martin Erat line, and they had only two shots on goal (four, if you include the two that Eric Fehr had when he moved to this line). Six (even eight) shots on goal from the scoring lines is not especially conducive to scoring. By way of comparison, the defense recorded 11 shots on goal.
-- The second line problems were in part a product of an injury sustained by Martin Erat late in the first period, who looked as if he injured his left arm when he got tangled up with Derek Stepan and fell to the ice.
-- The Rangers were up to old tricks last night. They blocked more shots (33) than the Caps recorded on goal (30). The defense had almost as many blocked shots (19) as did the entire Caps team (20).
-- It was an ugly night in the faceoff circle for the Capitals. They were 19-for-53 overall (35.8 percent) and just 5-for-18 (27.8 percent) in the offensive zone.
-- The Perreault-Ward-Chimera line (assembled when Erat went out, Eric Fehr moved to the second line, and Ward took Fehr’s place) was the most active one last night – 11 shots on goal, 2-3-5 overall with each player finishing plus-1.
In the end, this has become a frustrating series. The Caps are doing a lot of little things wrong (faceoffs, for example) and some big things wrong (a wandering goalie, the power play going dark, defensive breakdowns), and still lost these last two games by a single goal when they lost the third periods of both games. You get the feeling that if the Caps can stop beating themselves, this Rangers team cannot compete with them. But the Caps have been beating themselves, and the Rangers have been able to compete.
Now, it becomes a three-game series, and the Caps are really, really bad at three game series. In 2009 they had a three-game series when Pittsburgh tied their playoff series at two games apiece. The Caps lost, 2-1. The Caps beat the Boston Bruins in a three-game series in the first round of the playoffs last season, 2-1, but then lost to these same Rangers in the second round, 2-1. Going back in time… 2003, the Caps lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-0, after being tied 2-2 after four games. 2001, a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. 1996, a 2-0 loss to the Penguins.
There is a long, sad history here. What it means is that the Caps need to start playing like they have a chip on their shoulder, and not the weight of that history on their backs.