Sunday, April 29, 2012

Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1: Rangers 3 - Capitals 1

OK, that was a punch in the nose.

The Washington Capitals dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals matchup with the New York Rangers yesterday by a 3-1 margin. It nip and tuck (and zzzzz) for 40 minutes, but the Rangers took advantage of goalie Braden Holtby for a pair of goals in the last 20 minutes for the win at Madison Square Garden.

It was one of the strangest performances by a Caps team in the playoffs in recent memory. Perhaps it was a product of the both teams having to grind out Game 7 wins just days ago, maybe it was the afternoon setting. But the teams could manage only ten shots between them in the first period, only 11 between them in the second. In that second period, the Caps made the first of what would be three mistakes of consequence when Artem Anisimov circled out from behind the Washington net with the puck.

Mike Green was draped all over Anisimov in what looked “footballish” in this respect. In football, a defender is often cautioned to take on a ball-carrier low in making a tackle. Taking on the ball-carrier high gives the ball-carrier leverage to add on additional yards. Here, Green tied up Anisimov high and even had inside position on him. But Anisimov used his greater size to obtain leverage, and with his hands and stick free, was able to snap a shot at Holtby from in close as he came around the left post. Holtby seemed surprised by the shot and did not close the hole between his left arm and body fast enough to prevent the puck from sneaking in.

The Caps tied things up on a prettier play in the last seconds of the period when Brooks Laich carried the puck down the right wing through the neutral zone. Jason Chimera was on his left, steaming down the middle of the ice. It looked harmless enough with Marc Staal marking Laich and Dan Girardi guarding Chimera. The wild card was Chimera’s superior speed. As Laich crossed the blue line, Chimera found a higher gear that Girardi didn’t have. He gained separation from the defender, and Laich found him with a fine saucer pass. Chimera had only to redirect the pass past goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and he did just that with 3.5 seconds left on the clock.

It might have made for some momentum-building excitement for the Caps, but it would be the Rangers that would take control of the game in a 90-second span of time in the third period. The game-winning play started in the Caps’ end when Derek Stepan collected he puck along the right wing wall and started up ice. He found exiting the zone a bit easier when Ryan Callahan set a moving pick on Marcus Johansson to deny Johansson the chance to interrupt Stepan’s forward motion. Stepan cashed in on the opportunity, breaking out of the zone and finding Chris Kreider breaking down the middle while the Caps were bollixing up a line change. Stepan wired a pass through as Kreider was breaking between Green and Roman Hamrlik. That was all the advantage Kreider needed as he sped in and rifled a shot past between Holtby’s left pad and glove that the young goalie would probably like to have back.

Just a minute and half later, Brad Richards took advantage of Holby when the veteran picked up a loose puck along the left wing wall and walked out showing “pass.” The ruse worked as Richards inched in, looked right, then pulled the puck back and beat Holtby through his pads to give the Rangers some insurance. Needing two goals to keep the game going, the Caps would manage only one shot on the Ranger net after that, and Game 1 belonged to the Rangers.

Other stuff…

-- The 14 shots on goal allowed by the Caps is a new franchise record for fewest shots allowed in a road playoff game. They allowed 15 to the New York Islanders in a 2-1 loss in Game 3 of the 1985 Patrick Division semi-finals.

-- Fifteen of 18 Caps had shots on goal. That means that no one had too many. In fact, 13 Caps had one shot on goal, sort of the “Whitman’s Sampler” of shooting confections.

-- Speaking of shots, Alex Ovechkin did not attempt a shot until the 8:05 mark of the second period. He recorded his only shot on goal at the 49-second mark of the third period. He is going to have to be more dynamic in his offensive effort if the Caps are going to win this series.

-- Holtby acknowledged after the game that he was not sufficiently engaged, and he paid the rookie’s price for letting his focus wander. The two goals in the third, perhaps products of worn-off adrenaline and focus creep, looked like products of his youth. Learning how to manage a game like this with these stakes is part of a crash course in goaltending at the NHL level that Holtby is still taking.

-- Of the Caps’ 49 shot attempts, 25 of them came from defensemen (five of the 18 shots on goal). Caps’ forwards are going to have to do a better job of creating traffic in front of Henrik Lundqvist to tip shots or collect rebounds. Clean first shots aren’t going to be beating this guy often.

-- The Caps were 5-for-15 on faceoffs in the offensive end; 11-for-17 in the defensive zone. Hard for either team to get started when neither one starts too often with the puck in control.

-- Good Sasha…three shots on goal (led the team), a hit, a takeaway. Bad Sasha… two penalties, one an offensive zone tripping call early in the third period after the Caps scored that tying goal in the last seconds of the second period.

-- The Caps certainly consumed more than their minimum daily requirement of iron in this one. We counted at least four instances of a Cap beating Lundqvist and hitting a post or a crossbar. But that’s hockey. It does, however, provide an ominous tone going forward for the Rangers. The Caps have displayed a knack for beating Lundqvist, and when four of the 16 missed shots had sound effects, you have to wonder if the posts will be as forgiving for the Rangers moving forward.

-- The Caps held Ranger forwards to eight shots on goal, only seven of them at even strength. If the Caps do that over a series, they should win. They should not count on it.

In the end, you could say that the Rangers’ late season rookie addition – Chris Kreider (1-1-2) – was better than the Caps’ late season rookie addition – Braden Holtby (11 saves on 14 shots). But the Caps lacked the energy and focus that they had late in the series against Boston. Perhaps this is only natural. Even in the playoffs, there has to be a let-down after winning a Game 7 on the road in overtime. And, the Rangers after all merely held serve. The Caps still have an opportunity to get a foothold in this series on Monday night if they can beat Henrik Lundqvist without the sound effects. It isn’t as if they haven’t done it before.