If anyone understands the trials and travails of starting a fresh NHL regular season slate with a new coach behind the bench, a new system installed on the ice and a couple of key players on the sidelines, it’s the Washington Capitals. The Caps sputtered out to a 2-8-1 start under those circumstances last season, but staged a furious late-season rally that enabled them to overcome that dismal start and earn a playoff berth.
This time around, the New York Rangers are living the existence the Caps led at the start of last season. And while New York at least had the benefit of a full training camp complete with exhibition games – a luxury the Caps were not afforded in lockout-truncated 2012-13 – the Rangers also open the 2013-14 campaign with nine straight games on the road.
To make matters worse, the Rangers opted to have the latter portion of their training camp in Western Canada, putting the team on the road for 21 of 25 days at one point.
That formula has led to a 1-4 start for the Blueshirts, who have allowed an average of five goals per game while scoring just 1.5 tallies per tilt. Fortunately for New York, Alain Vigneault is a veteran coach who has been behind the bench for nearly 900 NHL games, including the Stanley Cup playoffs. He’ll be patient and the Rangers have too much talent to play as poorly as they’ve played over the long haul. And five games is a pittance of a sample size, anyway.
New York could be on the verge of waking from its season-opening slumber. The Rangers’ play improved on Saturday in its 5-3 loss to the Blues in St. Louis, and the club was able to return home for a few days in between, just enough time to do some laundry and get a couple of practices in. New York remains on the road until it hosts Montreal in its home opener on Oct. 28.
“I read some of the comments and they started their camp out West,” says Oates of the Rangers. “Watching some of the video, the first couple of games obviously they gave up a lot of goals and they looked a little bit unorganized. I thought the game against St. Louis they looked much more like themselves, a little bit more in synch. And they’ve had a few days of practice since then. I told the guys, ‘We should expect a different team tonight.’”
As was the case with Washington last season, the Rangers seemingly need some more reps in the form of practice and games before they’re able to latch onto Vigneault’s system and have it be instinctual.
New York has been outscored by a 7-3 count in the first period of its games this season while Washington is on the short end of a 9-4 first-period disadvantage in its half dozen games to date. The Caps have struggled out of the gate this season, but they know it would behoove them to get an early jump on a fragile New York club in Wednesday’s game.
“Especially with a team that’s been struggling and giving up goals,” says Washington forward Brooks Laich, “if you can jump on them early, get one or two quick ones in the first period and maybe get a lead, maybe they play with a little bit of ‘Here we go again,’ a little bit of doubt in their mind and that sort of stuff. For us, we want to get the building into it. We want to have a fast start and put the Rangers on their heels early.”
When the Caps scuffled their way to a 2-8-1 start last season, first periods weren’t killing them. Washington was outscored by just 11-9 in the first 20 minutes of those first 11 games last season. But the Caps crumbled in the middle frame; they were outscored 19-6 in the middle period of their first 11 games of 2012-13.
The Rangers are also dealing with a mid-game crisis in the early going. They’ve been outscored 12-3 in the second period of their five games this season.
“It’s most important to get the lead and it feels good,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “When you get the lead, everybody knows that you play with more confidence and play more simple hockey. You don’t have to go on the rush to score goals; you don’t have to do some crazy stuff. It helps when you get the lead.”
The Rangers feature a minus-16 goal differential achieved in just five games, easily the worst in the league. New York has been giving up goals of all kinds, but they’ve been especially vulnerable in transition and on the rush, an area where Washington has also had some difficulty defensively of late.
The Caps hope they can put themselves in position to take advantage if the Rangers enable Washington to have some transition chances.
“We’ve really done a lot of video and a lot of work in practice on our [defense] keeping a gap,” says Laich. “Forwards with back-pressure and tracking through the middle and because of that, [defensemen] being allowed to stand up. And also, we have very good skating defensemen and they can close a gap and keep a gap. The more that we can deny them entry into our zone and even deny them the blueline, the more it will lead to offensive rushes and offensive chances for us.”
Expect the Rangers to try to get in deep offensively and try to forecheck Washington’s relatively green blueliners. Because of injuries to defensemen Jack Hillen and John Erskine, the Caps are relying on three defensemen – Steve Oleksy, Alexander Urbom and Nate Schmidt – who have a combined total of 51 games of NHL experience.
“Communication is key,” says Oleksy, of avoiding the expected onrush of New York forwards in the Washington end. “I like to be vocal out there. It’s a fast-paced game and when you can take the thinking out of it for your partner, it makes things a lot easier for the both of you. Obviously being away from the play a little bit, your eyes are up ice and you can kind of see what’s coming a little more.
“You try to talk to him and that way he can just react to what I’m saying rather than pick his head up, think about what he’s going to do, and make a split-second decision. Especially in this league, the guys are so fast and strong. If you take that extra second, it could be dangerous.”