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A Closer Look Shows It's Not So Close

May 6, 2013

Washington takes the ice tonight on Broadway in Game 3 of its Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series with the New York Rangers seeking to put a chokehold on the best-of-seven series between the two clubs.


A closer look at what has happened in the last 128 minutes reveals that this series may not be as close as some have suggested, and that the Caps may well have already started to administer said chokehold.


Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist played about as good a game as a goaltender can play in a Stanley Cup playoff game in Game 2 of this series. He made 37 saves, including probably half a dozen stellar stops, and yet Lundqvist still found himself on the losing end of another postseason tilt for the fifth time in a row.


Washington defenseman Mike Green scored the game-winner on a power play blast from center point in overtime. Lundqvist flashed his glove hand on the shot, but the puck instead glanced off the right shin pad of New York penalty killer Derek Stepan and went bar-down into the net over Lundqvist’s stick-hand shoulder.


The frustration of the New York netminder was evident in the immediate aftermath of that goal. He skated toward the New York bench and elbowed his way through a line of teammates, nudging them aside in an effort to get off the ice – and out of town – as soon as possible.


A look at what has transpired in the first 128 minutes of this series – and a bit further back as well – shows why Lundqvist is so frustrated.


As has been the case in Manhattan for several springs now, Lundqvist could sue his teammates for non-support. He has now backstopped 21 straight playoff games in which his teammates have failed to score more than three times, posting a 9-12 record in those contests.


Coming into tonight’s Game 3, the Rangers have scored but one goal in the series. That came near the end of the first period of Game 1 when Carl Hagelin banked a shot in off the skate of Caps’ defenseman John Erskine.


Since then, Caps goaltender Braden Holtby has stopped everything the Rangers have sent in his direction. Holtby has stopped 59 of the 60 shots he has faced in this series, and he has posted a 1.59 GAA and a .941 save pct. in nine postseason games against the Blueshirts, including last spring’s second-round series between the two teams.


At the outset of Game 3, Holtby’s shutout streak over New York in this series is at 111 minutes and 16 seconds.


The Caps’ goaltender has had help from the 18 skaters in front of him, too. In Saturday’s scoreless tie, the Rangers were continually one shot away from taking a 1-0 lead in the game and possibly evening up the series.


Washington’s defense made it difficult for New York to even tee up that key shot, permitting the Rangers just five shots on goal in the final 28 minutes of Saturday’s game, and none over the final 17:43. That span included two New York power plays.


This is nothing that’s new to Lundqvist. As we mentioned earlier, he has won just nine of his last 21 Stanley Cup playoff starts. He has pitched shutouts in three of those triumphs, and has allowed but one goal in four of the nine. A lesser netminder would have a far worse record with such a body of non-support.


Special teams have played a big part in this series, but that’s the case in most playoff series. And heading into this series, the Caps figured to have the edge in special teams play anyway. Washington’s power play was tops in the circuit during the regular season, and it was the league’s most prolific extra-man unit in the last 23 years.


Those who bothered to dig a bit beyond the surface numbers learned that the Caps’ penalty-killing outfit was a middle-off-the-pack unit after Feb. 7, and that Washington allowed just two power play goals in its last 23 shorthanded missions of the regular season. One of those goals against came in the waning seconds of the man advantage and the other came on a 4-on-3 in overtime.


Those who picked the Rangers to win this series can’t be surprised by Washington’s special teams advantage in the first two games. But they might be enlightened by the strength of the Capitals’ even-strength game so far in the series.


New York was the league’s third-best team in terms of five-on-five play during the regular season, sporting a 1.30 ratio of goals for/against in five-on-five play. Only Chicago and Pittsburgh were better.


After losing Game 1, the Rangers noted that they needed to be more disciplined in Game 2. They were, but they still lost because the Caps dominated the game in terms of territory and possession at even-strength.


“I think the last game, they don’t puts lots of pressure in our zone,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “And I think today [because of] the crowd and the situation, they’re going to play differently.”


Washington’s defense has been efficient at moving the puck and at keeping the Rangers from prime scoring areas in front.


“I think that we’ve done an excellent job of staying poised back there,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson, who has been brilliant in the series to date. “When plays are there, we make a [defense to defense pass] and up the boards, and our wingers have been helping us out, winning those battles on the boards. Then obviously Holtby has been playing great. That’s a defenseman’s best friend.”


“We’re sticking to our system and sticking to the game plan,” says Erskine. “We’re not going out of position trying to make chances. We just kind of wait for it, and it’s going well right now.”


New York adjusted after Game 1, but the Caps won Game 2. Now the Rangers must adjust and solve the Caps in the five-on-five game, or risk going into an 0-3 series hole.


Two springs ago, these two teams played a Game 3 here at Madison Square Garden, a Game 3 that followed two Washington wins in the District. The Rangers won that game, ending a five-game postseason losing streak and pulling to within 2-1 in the series.


Tonight, the Rangers are looking to end another five-game postseason losing streak with another Game 3 win over a Capitals team that has never won a Game 3 in a series in which it has taken a 2-0 lead.

While New York is seeking to avoid a sixth straight Stanley Cup playoff setback, the Caps are looking to win a third straight playoff game for the first time in more than three years, since winning Games 2-4 of their first-round series with Montreal in 2010.


Rangers coach John Tortorella made mention to the media this morning of how he believes the series is closer than it appears. We’re not sure whom he is trying to convince; without Lundqvist the Caps might have won each of the first two games by multiple goals.


“I think we’re close, I’ll put it to you that way,” says the Rangers’ bench boss. “But it means squat if we don’t win.”


The man they call King Henrik was as good as he could be in Game 2, but New York’s recent postseason history shows that the King also needs all the King’s horses and all the King’s men to pull on their end of the rope.


It’s a tall order when you’ve got to be perfect for your team to have a chance to win.


One final note: other than Lundqvist between the pipes, the one constant of New York’s five-game postseason losing streak is Adam Oates behind the opposing team’s bench. He’ll be there again tonight.