Best of Three – After vaulting out to a 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers, the Washington Capitals are now all even with the Blueshirts at 2-2 after suffering a second 4-3 loss in as many games at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night in Game 4.
The two teams now return to Washington for a pivotal Game 5 on Friday night at Verizon Center.
Despite the closeness of the final score on Wednesday, the Capitals didn’t play well enough in the first half of Game 4 to reasonably be able to expect a victory. Past the midway mark of the contest, the Caps were down 2-0 and were being out-possessed and outplayed in most aspects of the game.
“Obviously the goal was to get one,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, speaking of the two games in New York. [They were] two pretty close games. I didn’t think we got into the game soon enough tonight. They probably had a little momentum carry over from the win the other night. It took us a little while, and then once we got our legs it was a pretty good hockey game. But obviously not the start we wanted.”
Washington was unable to do anything with an early power play chance in the first period, and the Rangers took a 1-0 lead in the 17th minute of the game on a slick piece of hand-eye coordination from New York forward Taylor Pyatt.
Caps goalie Braden Holtby had the puck on his stick inside the bottom of the circle to the left of the Washington net. Holtby tried to saucer a long lead pass to Eric Fehr who was lurking in the neutral zone up along the opposite wall, but Pyatt expertly flagged it down. Carl Hagelin picked up the disc and fired, but Caps defenseman John Erskine made the stop. Unfortunately for Washington, the rebound went right to New York’s Brad Richards, who buried a one-timer into a mostly vacant cage to give New York the early 1-0 lead.
“Fehrsie was at the far blueline,” explains Holtby. “It would have been a breakaway. It’s my job; I thought I made the right play, I just needed to get it a foot higher so [Pyatt] has to take a high stick on it. It happens. He made a great play on it.”
The Rangers’ Derek Dorsett was whistled for tripping a mere 24 seconds after the New York goal, but the Caps could do nothing with the man-advantage. Instead, the Caps found themselves defending several strong shorthanded bids from the Rangers. With Stepan coming back for a semi-breakaway, Caps forwards Martin Erat and Alex Ovechkin converged to backcheck simultaneously. Erat got the worst of a three-way collision between the two Caps and Stepan, leaving the game with what appeared to be a wrist or hand injury.
Ovechkin was nabbed for charging on the play and Erat for hooking, giving New York a 4-on-3 power play for 23 seconds and a 5-on-3 for 1:37. With some great work from Holtby and Washington’s penalty-killing outfit, the Caps were able to weather that storm.
Washington was worked over in its own end for much of the first half of the second, but Holtby kept the Caps within a goal until just past the midpoint of the middle frame. Hagelin scored on a one-timer from the left circle, taking a sublime cross-ice feed from Derick Brassard and firing high over Holtby’s left shoulder.
With just nine shots on goal in 30-plus minutes against Rangers netminder and Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist, and facing a Rangers team that was 18-2-1 during the regular season when scoring the game’s first goal and 13-0-1 when leading after the first frame, the Caps were looking up at a two-goal deficit against a stingy defensive team that rarely surrenders leads.
Just past the midpoint of the contest, the Caps were being outshot 21-9 and 36-31 in shot attempts. The Rangers were outhitting the Caps 23-11 and New York had won 17 of 25 face-offs (68%).
The Caps finally showed drew life from Mathieu Perreault’s first career Stanley Cup playoff goal at 13:08 of the second.
Jason Chimera broke the puck out of the Washington end and took a hit to make a play in the neutral zone, passing to Joel Ward, who carried into the attack zone. Ward shook Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto, drove the net and shot. Lundqvist stopped it, but Perreault tapped the rebound home from just outside the far goalpost.
Washington began to carry some of the play, but the Caps needed a couple of key stops from goaltender Braden Holtby late in the second to stay within a goal. Those saves loomed large when the Caps managed to tie the game at 2-2 in the waning seconds of the middle frame.
Caps defenseman Mike Green neatly kept the puck in the zone at the right point, and he fed right wing Troy Brouwer near the top of the right circle. Brouwer curled into the slot ahead of two Ranger defenders before lofting a backhander that beat Lundqvist high to the stick side.
Seemingly, the Caps had the momentum. But they would surrender it within the 17.1 seconds that remained in the stanza at the time of Brouwer’s goal.
Perreault won the neutral ice face-off following his goal, and the Caps roared back into the New York end looking for more. Lundqvist stopped John Carlson’s slapper and also stopped Ward’s follow-up. But the officials ruled that Chimera had interfered with Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman in the ensuing goalmouth scramble, giving New York its fourth power play of the night on a fresh sheet of ice to start the third period.
“We just scored a goal and also we get a chance with a couple seconds left and [Chimera] is going to the net hard,” notes Caps coach Adam Oates. “He pushed the guy; it’s a penalty for sure. He’s just pushing the guy trying to get a rebound. He just pushed a little hard.”
New York maintained offensive zone possession for the first half of the power play, regaining the lead when Dan Girardi’s shot from the right point eluded Holtby to make it a 3-2 game.
“It’s tough when you have to start the period on a kill because they have 15-20 minutes to go over what they’re going to do,” says Brouwer. “We can prepare as much as we can, but they moved the puck well, they picked seams on us and they made a good shot. We were a little bit slow out of the gates after that as well and they were able to score another quick one and we spent the whole game trying to play catch-up. We did a good job, but we let them get too far ahead.”
The real backbreaker came just over five minutes later. Washington’s first line and third defensive pair were caught on an icing call. Rangers pivot Derek Stepan bested Nicklas Backstrom on the draw in Washington’s end. Caps defenseman Jack Hillen blocked a Ryan Callahan shot, but no one in a Washington sweater was able to locate the puck. Hagelin collected it down low and pushed it to Stepan, who fired it into a virtually empty net to restore New York’s two-goal advantage at 6:02 of the third.
“We didn’t clear it out at the blueline,” laments Oates. “We gave them too many chances to keep it in.
“You’ve got to give [the Rangers] some credit. We have to do a better job of getting the puck out. It happens at times. You get support and we missed a few easy clears.”
Washington made it a one-goal game less than 90 seconds later. Ward won a face-off in the New York end, and Karl Alzner’s shot from the left point clicked off Perreault for the center’s second goal of the game. Rangers defenseman John Moore felled Chimera with a hard cross-check to the back immediately after the play, likely a more egregious violation than earlier calls on Erskine and Chimera in the game, but no penalty was assessed.
The Caps still had 12 and a half minutes with which to work, but were unable to manufacture the tying tally. The last 3:42 of the game was played without a whistle, and the Caps were never able to use their timeout to regroup, draw up a play or give some of their offensive weapons a quick breather.
“We made a couple of defensive zone mistakes,” says Brouwer, “turned the pucks over in the neutral zone a little bit and they were able to counter, have a couple of good two-on-ones and three-on-twos. And then the game-winner turned out to be when we weren’t able to get the puck out after a long shift, we iced it and they were able to capitalize. I thought we needed to generate more shots; that was also a big one.
“We won our games at home and they won their games at home. That’s why home ice is so important in the playoffs and we battled so hard to get ourselves in a position where if there is a Game 7 it will be at home. We don’t want it to go that far. We’re going to go home, we’ve had good success so far against them in the playoffs at home and we’re going to look to our crowd to get us going.”
New York has lost nine of its last 10 playoff games at Verizon Center. The Caps were 7-0-1 in their last eight regular season home games in 2012-13 before winning the first two games of their series against the Rangers on home ice.
“It’s a three-game series now,” notes Holtby. “We still have home-ice advantage. We knew it was going to be a tough series. We learned last year that this team we’re playing doesn’t give up. Coming in, we didn’t care how many games it took to win as long as we win four.”
The successive losses suffered in New York were the first the Caps have absorbed in nearly two months, since a three-game skid from March 9-12, matching their longest regulation losing streak of the 2012-13 season.
“We did a great job of coming back [on Wednesday],” says Holtby. “Obviously the game was in [the Rangers’] favor for the first half. We didn’t give up. We got a big goal; Wardo made a huge play. We know that everyone on the roster is capable of those plays to show that we’re not out of it. We did a good job of coming back.”
Tough Town For Key Caps – Ovechkin has now been held without a point in consecutive contests for just the second time in his Stanley Cup playoff career. The Caps’ captain was held off the scoresheet in Game 7 of the Capitals’ opening round set with Boston last spring and also was without a point in the second-round series opener against New York in 2012.
Ovechkin and linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson combined to take 16 shots in Game 4, but they managed to get only four on net. Ovechkin himself had one shot on net, five that were blocked and three that missed.
“That’s part of the game,” says Oates. “[Ovechkin’s line] had their moments but obviously they could probably generate more. You’ve got to give [the Rangers] some credit there. They’ve got to fight through the frustration. It happens.”
Ovechkin has not been held scoreless in consecutive contests since a three-game dry spell from March 9-12, just past the midpoint of the regular season. Washington was winless in those three games.
“I think our line has to play better,” says Ovechkin. “When we have a chance to go play in their zone, we have to use it. Tonight we didn’t do it and I don’t think we had lots of opportunities to score goals.
“We didn’t play well tonight, our line. [The Rangers] didn’t do something special.”
Holtby has allowed as many as four goals in consecutive games for the first time in his Stanley Cup playoff career, and he has lost consecutive games for the first time in his NHL posteason career.
Prior to Wednesday’s game, Holtby was 7-0 with a 1.21 GAA and a .962 save pct. in the seven appearances following a loss in his Stanley Cup career.
Holtby has allowed as many as four goals in a game for the first time since the first two games of the 2012-13 regular season when he suffered a 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay and a 4-2 setback to Winnipeg, respectively.
Leading Men – The Caps owned a lead for just 8:44 of the 120 minutes of hockey played in New York in the series. Since the end of Game 1, that 8:44 of lead time is all the Caps have had in the last 188 minutes played in this series.
Washington was down by two goals twice in Wednesday’s Game 4, but for less than three minutes on both occasions. The Caps have trailed by two goals for a total of 4:24 in the series.
Including the 2012-13 regular season, the Caps have been down by as many as two goals in juts six of their last 25 games. They’ve come back to at least tie the game in five of those six and they’ve won three of those contests.
Man Down – Erat left the game after skating just six shifts totaling 4:42. Fehr moved up to skate Erat’s spot on the left side of the line with Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro, and Ward moved in with Perreault and Chimera, where Fehr had been playing. That left Ovechkin to get some double-shifts with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle, Ward’s linemates at the game’s outset.
“I was playing with them before I was out at the end of the season a little bit,” says Ward of Chimera and Perreault. “Obviously I know what they’re capable of doing. With guys I have been playing with, you just try to execute as best as you can and try to make some plays. Tonight we had some chances. It’s too bad we didn’t get more.”
Extra-Man Spread – The Caps had three power play chances in Monday’s Game 3, but Washington went more than 20 minutes between those three man-advantages while New York’s six man-advantage opportunities were clustered in the first 26:32 of the game, and five of them issued in a span of just 15:42.
Washington had two power-play chances in Game 4, but no New York penalties were called in the final 43:11 of play.
The Rangers had four power plays in Wednesday’s game, and those calls came in a span of 21:34. New York had 23 seconds of 4-on-3 time and 1:37 with a 5-on-3 advantage. The Rangers have had two 5-on-3 power plays during the series for a total of 2:33.
New York had 10 power plays to five for the Caps in the two games played at Madison Square Garden, and the Rangers have had 17 power plays in the series, third most among teams that have played four games in the playoffs. The Caps have had a dozen power plays, third fewest among teams that have played four games.
Power Move – When the Rangers took to the ice for their crucial power play chance to start the third period, they were 1-for-16 with the extra man in the series. Having had the entire second intermission to think about it and for his players to rest, and having a fresh sheet of ice, New York coach John Tortorella elected to bench Richards, Ryan Callahan and Rick Nash, his three most frequently used power-play weapons during the regular season in terms of ice time.
Tortorella went with Brassard, Brian Boyle and Mats Zuccarello up front and Dan Girardi and Del Zotto in back. The move paid off, with Girardi’s power-play goal giving New York a lead it would not relinquish.
For Girardi, the power-play goal was his first in the regular season or playoff since May 19, 2012 when he scored with the extra man in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final series between the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.
Offensive Bonanza – When this series headed to New York for Monday’s Game 3, the Rangers had gone 21 straight postseason games without scoring as many as four goals in a game. They’ve now netted four goals in consecutive contests.
In a somewhat related note, Lundqvist had gone 14 straight postseason games – covering a span of more than four years – without winning any contest (0-14) in which he had surrendered as many as three goals. Lundqvist has now won two straight Stanley Cup playoff games while surrendering three goals in each.
Doubling Up – After scoring just one goal in his first 27 career Stanley Cup playoff games, Stepan has now scored in consecutive contests. He has also supplied the game-winning goal in consecutive contests.
Fresh Blood – Rangers forward Ryane Clowe was back in the lineup after missing the first three games of the series with an injury. Clowed logged 12:19 on the night and was a minus-1. He had four hits and a secondary assist on Hagelin’s goal.
Defenseman Marc Staal was out of the lineup for the Rangers in Game 4. Staal had returned to play Game 3 after an absence of 29 games because of an eye injury. Ex-Caps defenseman Steve Eminger replaced Staal. Eminger was plus-1 with four hits in just 5:54 of work on the night.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears were in action on Wednesday, playing on the road against the Providence Bruins in the deciding game of their best-of-five first-round Calder Cup playoff series. Hershey won the first two games of the series in Providence, but the Bruins rebounded by winning Games 3 and 4 at Giant Center over the weekend to force Wednesday’s deciding Game 5. Hershey absorbed a 3-2 loss, ending its season.
Hershey got the early jump on its hosts when Casey Wellman scored his third goal of the playoffs at 1:19 of the first period with help from Dane Byers and Chay Genoway. The P-Bruins responded less than four minutes later, drawing even on a goal from Justin Florek.
Jordan Caron staked the Bruins to a 2-1 lead at 15:08 of the second period, and the Bears headed into the third down a goal.
Joey Crabb evened it up for the Bears with a goal at 3:56 of the third, his fifth goal in as many games. Peter LeBlanc had the solo assist. Jamie Tardif scored the go-ahead goal for Providence at 9:20 of the third, and Hershey was unable to muster another. The Bears had a power play opportunity in the final minute, but to no avail.
Philipp Grubauer made 34 saves for the Bears in a losing effort. He was named the game’s third star.
In hindsight, having six days between Games 2 and 3 likely harmed the Bears, sapping all momentum gathered from winning the first two games of the series on the road.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals were also in action on the road on Wednesday night, playing Game 3 of their Eastern Conference final series with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Reading suffered a 3-2 loss in overtime, making it a clean sweep of road playoff losses for the Caps’ organization on Wednesday night. Reading still owns a 2-1 series lead over the Cyclones.
Alex Berry and Nikita Kashirsky scored for Reading, and Turner Gill made 28 saves for the Royals in taking the loss. Game 4 is Friday night in Cincinnati.
By The Numbers – Washington had more shots blocked (33) than it got on net (30) … The Caps attempted 82 shots to 62 for the Rangers and led 51-26 in that department in the game’s final 28 minutes … New York outhit Washington 38-20 … Green led the Caps with 25:28 in ice time on Wednesday … Perreault paced the Caps with five shots on net … Erskine led the Caps with three hits … John Carlson led Washington with five blocked shots … The Caps won only 19 of 53 draws (36%) … Brassard won eight of nine (89%) and Boyle 11 of 16 (69%) face-offs … Ryan McDonagh led the Rangers with 31:29 in ice time, and he did a great job of stifling Ovechkin and his linemates for the second time in as many games … Callahan led the Rangers with five hits and seven blocked shots; he and Stepan led the way for the Blueshirts with six shots on net each.