Madison Square Garden is not an easy building for a visiting team. And the New York Rangers are not an easy team to play against in the Broadway barn.
The Rangers won six straight home games to conclude the 2012-13 regular season, outscoring their foes by a combined 26-7 in the process.
But the Caps had a chance to win Monday’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between Washington and the Rangers. The Caps scored the game’s first goal, silencing the sellout throng. Washington scored three goals, the first visiting team to do so in a span of nine games. And the game was tied at 3-3 with seven minutes left in the third.
In between that first goal and that crucial juncture of the third period, however, the Caps were faced with five straight penalty-killing situations in a span of just 15:42. New York scored its first power play goal of the series and got another tally just as one of its six man advantage opportunities expired.
Having to kill six penalties put the Capitals out of their rhythm and left Washington’s energy reserves a bit depleted when needed late in the game. Alex Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro aren’t part of the penalty-killing unit; they’re languishing on the bench when Washington is forced to face several penalty-killing situations.
“It’s very hard,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “Troy [Brouwer] kills, Marty [Erat] kills, [Backstrom] kills, Ovi is sitting there. It factors into the minutes.
“It’s hard and the minutes get spread out and that’s not really our type of game. We don’t really want to trade power plays. But it happened [Monday] night. We move on.”
Monday’s game marked the first time since March 9 that the Caps had been tasked with as many as six penalty-killing missions in a game. During the regular season, Washington was 3-7-2 in games in which it faced five or more penalty-killing situations in a game.
“It just felt like the first two periods all we were doing was killing,” says Caps right wing Eric Fehr. “I don’t even remember a five-on-five shift with my line. That’s frustrating. We have a really good team that enjoys playing all four lines. We have the ability to take over games as a unit and we weren’t able to roll over the lines, so it’s tough.”
Fehr, who skated just 59 seconds at even strength in the first period, hit the nail on the head. Washington has dominated the Rangers – the league’s third best five-on-five team (in terms of ratio of goals for/against) during the regular season – in the last two games of the series. Giving the Rangers the opportunity to get their dormant power play going is every bit as counterproductive to Washington as keeping the Caps off the ice in five-on-five situations.
“For half of the second period,” says Oates, “Mathieu Perreault’s line was having a great game, yet I couldn’t get them on the ice. It’s very difficult. We just can’t take too many penalties.”
Perreault and linemates Fehr and Jason Chimera manufactured the Green goal late in the second, and Fehr hit the crossbar with a chance off a rush in the third.
On the other side of that ice time coin, the Caps rode a couple of their horses pretty hard early in the game because of the heavy penalty-killing burden. Defenseman John Carlson led the Caps with 5:38 in shorthanded ice time for the game, logging more than half (3:10) of that total in the first period. Carlson skated 21:48 on the night, with 9:20 of that total coming in the game’s first 20 minutes.
The ice time of Carlson’s partner John Erskine was similarly skewed; Erskine logged 7:25 in the first, 2:44 of which came while the Caps were shorthanded. Erskine punched in for 17:38 on the night. The duo was on the ice for both even-strength goals the Rangers scored in the third period of Game 3.
“We want to play every player on our team,” says Fehr. “I think that’s one of the best attributes of our team is we have a lot of depth. We want to use it and we weren’t able to [Monday] night and it ended up costing us.
“It’s tougher to get a good rhythm. We’ve got some really skilled players sitting on the bench watching and it’s tough for them to get a feel for the game. At the end of the day, we’re tied in the third period. We’ve got to find a way to win it and we couldn’t do it.”
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best in the business. He played as well as he can play in Saturday’s Game 2, and the Caps still skated off with a 1-0 overtime win to take a 2-0 series lead. Washington scored three even-strength goals against Lundqvist in Game 3, a feat the Caps have achieved just three times in 22 playoff games against the New York netminder over the past five springs.
Washington won each of those previous three games in which they scored three even-strength markers against Lundqvist. It won’t be easy to match that feat again in this series.
The Caps will have at the Rangers again on Wednesday in Game 4. The Caps will be seeking to play as much of the game as possible at even-strength. The Rangers will be seeking to even the series.