When the Washington capitals took a lead in the playoffs last year under coach Dale Hunter, they shut it down and went into a shell. Grinders Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks and Co. skated every other shift, and captain Alex Ovechkin sat on the bench most of the time.
What a difference Adam Oates makes. In protecting a two-goal lead in their Game 1 victory over the New York Rangers, the Caps showed they won’t abandon the plan.
“We still try to push the pace this year,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We still try to keep the pucks going forward, get them deep. Last year, we sat back a little back, tried to block shots, just kind of weather the storm. As long as we’re keeping pucks down in their end, we had a lot of good cycle shifts that killed a lot of time off the clock.”
The Caps got a 3-1 lead with 4:53 left in the second period. That’s a lot of time to kill, especially against a Rangers team that scored 51 goals in its final 14 regular-season games.
“We played kind of the same way that we always like to play,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We didn’t take our foot off the gas too much. Obviously, they came harder than they did in the first two, so it made it a little bit tougher to sustain the pressure, but we just did the same thing. We don’t change our style of play for anything now.”
Left wing Jason Chimera lamented the Caps not pushing back hard enough when the Rangers came at them.
“We’ve got to go,” Chimera said. “We’ve got to create turnovers and stuff like that. When we sit back we don’t create turnovers and we’re not going forward. When you don’t go north, we ended up spending some more time in our end than we did and they got some zone time.
“You don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves; if they get the second goal, then they’re only one bounce away from tying it. So you’ve got to keep the pressure on, you’ve got to keep the pucks going north.”
The Caps held New York without a shot for the remainder of the second period after Chimera’s goal. That they were outshot 12-7 in the third period was expected, but Washington didn’t cave.
“We didn’t quit playing our game,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Last year if we got a lead we tried to almost trap, I guess. They both work. But our system we feel is more suitable to our team. And it worked.”
It didn’t hurt that Holtby made several clutch saves, like one against the right post with 4:03 left that was almost a goal by Rangers defenseman John Moore. But it wasn’t like he had to fend off an onslaught of quality shots because the Caps didn’t sit back and revert to Hunter hockey.
“I think we just stuck to what we were doing and just kept it a little more simple,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “When we play the game we’re supposed to throughout 60 minutes, that’s when we’re really good. I think we did that.”