The Rangers used the momentum from early power plays to cut the series lead to 2-1. (MSG)
The Washington Capitals dropped a game in their 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers on Monday night, falling 4-3 to the Rangers inside the World’s Most Famous Arena. After taking an early lead on a Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals allowed two goals before tying the game on a Mike Green tally. After trading goals with New York in the first ten minutes of the third period, Derek Stepan broke the tie for good in close after Ryan McDonagh held the puck in at the line. A late power play for the Capitals with 1:56 remaining failed to even produce a shot, and the Caps saw their advantage in the series cut in half.
The power play at the end of the game for Washington was brutal. After biting so hard on Mike Ribeiro’s fake at the end of game two, did the Capitals really think that the Ranger penalty killers were going to give in to his jukes so easily with the game on the line? I bet John Tortorella personally drilled in to each player’s head that Ribeiro doesn’t shoot on the power play. But the Caps’s shifty center had the puck in a shooting position for a majority of the man advantage without pulling the trigger and his team paid for it, not even getting a shot on goal. Yes, the shooting lanes were clogged, but you have to make something work in that situation and Alex Ovechkin, the team’s best power play weapon, floated unused at the left circle. Inexcusable, especially with how great the power play has been this year.
I’ve said continuously during this series that whoever won the penalty battle would have the advantage in this series. It seems like an obvious statement, and it is, but it’s important to note that at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers almost always hold the penalty advantage; that’s just the way it is, especially in the playoffs. That proved to be true early, as the Rangers had earned six power plays after 25 minutes, five of which came consecutively, and scored one goal right after a man advantage expired and one during a man advantage. Power plays in this series are everything: the Washington power play is excellent, and it fuels their momentum. Without a steady diet of these opportunities, it is going to be more difficult for the Caps to establish puck possession and pressure continuously. The constant penalty kills early set the tone for the whole game.
Still, I thought that Washington played well at even strength on Monday at times. Every player on the Capitals was plus-corsi except John Erskine, and six were in double figures on the positive side. This is something that is surprising given the Rangers’ superior play at five on five in terms of possession during the regular season, but certainly a welcome surprise. Still, it’s hard to gain significant momentum from having an even strength-possession advantage if you’re constantly killing penalties. That was a difference tonight; hopefully it stops being so as the series progresses.
After two games in which he was the Capitals’ best player, Braden Holtby was not at his best tonight; he made 26 saves on 30 shots. He made some great saves and looked solid overall, but he just wasn’t at the level he was for the first two games of the series, and it showed. Now, that absolutely does not mean that the result was his fault or that he could be solely blamed for any of the goals he allowed. It just means that with a team as physical and tenacious as the Rangers, who generate chances and shots constantly, Holtby needs to be at the top of his game in order to see this series off. I expect him to be back at the top of his game on Wednesday night; no worries here about the Caps’ young goaltender.
When George McPhee signed Eric Fehr to his contract in January, the usual suspects were out in full force screaming that the Capitals’ GM was “lazy” and didn’t know what he was doing by signing cheap talent with potential instead of big name free agents like P.A. Parenteau. Fehr has proved those people wrong, as he has vastly outperformed the value of his $600,000 contract in being one of Washington’s best players over the last two months and in this playoff series. He had an absolutely monster shift in overtime of game two which helped set the winning events in motion, and just generally works his butt off, which was again apparent in this game. With this work ethic coupled with his size, speed, and skill, Fehr has become a weapon for Adam Oates to use in any situation and a very good move by this team’s management.
This was a step backwards, as any loss in a playoff series is. The Capitals were in a hole from the beginning, taking too many penalties and once again failing to take advantage of many of the opportunities that the suddenly open Rangers seem to be giving them. Their power play, when they got it, was stagnant and did not produce much momentum or a goal. Even the goals they scored seemed to benefit from a little bit of luck, except Mike Green’s snipe. Just overall not a very good game from this team who seemed a bit overwhelmed, and their best players were not their best players (with the exception of Green, and even he wasn’t great). Nevertheless, Tuesday is a new day and Wednesday is a new game. Washington still has a lead in this series and they cannot panic; they must get back to basics, keep their feet moving, and the good things will come. Onward.
Game four is scheduled for Wednesday at 7:30 from Madison Square Garden.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.