After four days of anticipation, hand-wringing and analysis, the Rangers and Caps finally kicked off their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series last night. And it was ugly. There’s no two ways around it, the boys were sloppy, undisciplined and flat out not ready to play this game. They were dominated for the first ten minutes of the game, and fell victim to taking far too many penalties. However, there were quite a few positives to take away from this game as evidence that this team can still win this series. Let’s talk it out…
The game was lost in a span of :46 seconds
Sure, Ovechkin tied the game on the powerplay. It was a penalty that shouldn’t even have been called. That’s hockey. The tide of this game was turned however, on two mistakes. The first, was a mental mistake between the pairing of Girardi and McDonagh in letting Marcus Johansson slip in behind them for a breakaway. The second was made by Henrik Lundqvist on Jason Chimera’s back-breaking third goal.
Forty-six seconds apart. There’s the whole game. The Blueshirts weathered the storm of the Capitals’ attack in the first period, scored a goal they didn’t really deserve, and found their legs in the later stages of the game. If not for these two mental breakdowns, we could have been heading to OT with some momentum in the Rangers’ favor. I know it’s unfair, and we are spoiled by Hank’s general excellence, but I’d like to see him stop that move from Johansson. He was off-balance and let the puck squeak through him. When the King is on his game, that puck is not in the net.
Speaking of which, when was the last time Hank underperformed when it mattered most? 2010? Hank has always been rock solid if not “pick the team up by the bootstraps” good in his Rangers’ playoff tenure. While he did not play poorly last night (he was tremendous in the first period), he was not the goaltender he has to be for 60 minutes for the Rangers to win playoff games.
For all of you regular readers out there, you know I’m not particularly critical of Hank most of the time. He has earned a hugely long leash for one-off mistakes due to his past play and overall 150% effort that he gives to this team. With that said, for the rest of this series, he has to be better. He needs to make Washington scratch and claw for every goal they score. If he can do that, the Rangers can win this series.
As an objective analyst, I love Braden Holtby. As a Ranger fan who needs him to cede goals to my beloved team, I know he’s going to drive me nuts. He played very, very well last night, was the beneficiary of some puck luck and got a handy assist from his goal frame. All that said, the Rangers had plenty of chances to pot at least 3-4 goals in that game.
While the Caps did a Ranger-esque job of shot blocking/low zone collapse, keeping the more dangerous Ranger players to the outside, the chances were there. On the John Moore non-goal, I can tell you from experience, that if you are that off-balance on the short side as a goaltender, 99.9% of the time, that puck either beats you clean or rolls off your back and into the net.
The Caps didn’t really contain the top two scoring lines
Yes, the Caps outplayed the Rangers for the most part, and had a quality penalty-kill. However, the defensive core of Alzner, Carlson, Erskine and Oleksy did not inspire much confidence in being able to shut down the Nash or Stepan lines with regularity in this series. The shot blocking took a lot of the sting out of the chances these lines created, but the Caps were often finding themselves clearing scrums out of the front of the net, or laying out for blocks from dangerous areas of the ice.
The third period
This could have been a product of the Caps sitting back to defend the lead, but with the exception of some counter punching and a shift or two pinning the Rangers in their zone, the entire third period looked like the Rangers imposing their will on the Caps. The Caps would clear the puck, the Rangers would retrieve it, and head back to the offensive zone to try and cut the lead.
Hopefully this momentum, and a quick turnaround time (a little over 36 hours from final buzzer to opening face-off) could aid the Rangers in grabbing a foothold early in this series and stealing home ice advantage back.
I couldn’t find the stats broken down to this extent in time for publishing this post, but from the eye test, it seemed the Rangers lost a ton of offensive zone face-offs, especially on the powerplay. Washington only won two more face-offs overall during the game, but it seemed every time we were set up in the offensive zone, we had to play fetch, which shaved :20 off the clock each time before setting up again.
Rick Nash had 8 shots on goal. When Nash, and the Rangers as a whole aren’t playing all that well, imagine what kind of damage he can do when the team is really going? When the team was “contained” to the tune of only 1 goal (even though they could have had 3-4, easy), I’m really looking forward to the inevitable Nash breakout in this series.
Which brings me to my final point: While the Rangers did look pretty (bad, unprepared, sloppy, I’ll let you pick your own adjective) last night, they could have easily found themselves tied or ahead in that game. I did not see a Caps team that is out of the Rangers’ league or a team that they cannot battle long into a series. There were swings, of course, because Washington is a talented side. Overall though, if the Rangers can find the discipline and structure that gave them success after the deadline, they can easily turn this series around. That, and staying out of the damn penalty box.