NEW YORK | Every play and decision this time of year can turn the tide of a game or even a series. Capitals veteran Mike Knuble even said Game 3 against the Rangers on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden was a "coin flip."
But it was one with drastic ramifications. Coming up on the wrong end of it with a 3-2 loss, the Caps cost themselves the chance to all but put the series away. Instead, they were left wondering about how a parade to the penalty box cut their lead over New York in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to 2-1.
"It's a 3-2 game where they scored in the last minute-and-a-half. If we don't take penalties – all three games have been wars and battles," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Whoever makes the mistakes and the other team capitalizes on them ... is gonna be the successful team."
The Caps weren't successful in this tight game largely because they committed eight minor penalties and had to kill off seven Rangers power plays. New York scored on just one of them, but Washington's flow wasn't there because so many penalty-killers weren't able to spend time concentrating on generating offense.
Nicklas Backstrom questioned the validity of some of the calls – a few of which were questionable – but Knuble explained that it's not an excuse.
"It's not the playoff hockey of old. You get sticks on guys and somebody stumbles or you can-open a guy a little bit, you're gonna get called," he said. "Is it always a penalty when you get a stick on a guy? Not necessarily but that's the standard being set and we'll live by it."
Momentum kept turning throughout the game – including when it looked like the Rangers scored at the end of the second period. A video review spared the Caps when the official clock showed that time expired, but they couldn't turn that into the boost they needed to grab a 3-0 lead in the series. Instead, a Brandon Dubinsky shot deflected in off Karl Alzner's shoulder and then Alex Ovechkin's stick and past Michal Neuvirth with 1:39 left.
"I think it was my mistake when we hold puck in the corner; I just turn it over and then try to make a play," Ovechkin said. "It hit my stick and goes in."
That mistake was the margin between the Rangers getting significant life in the series and the Caps possibly forcing overtime and effectively crushing New York at the Garden. But well before that, Washington got goaded into frustration penalties by an aggressive Rangers team and seemingly couldn't stay out of the box.
"We took some penalties that we shouldn't take, and I think we were getting involved in the scrums after the whistles too much," forward Matt Bradley said. "In the playoffs you have to just kinda suck those things up because you can't afford to go down a man."
But the Caps skated down a man for 8:59 and down two for another 1:34. Some of it was a matter of agitators like Sean Avery and Brian Boyle getting to the Caps – something Boudreau complained about afterward.
"You can't take [eight] penalties, be short-handed seven times," he said. "You knew they were gonna be antagonistic in that and we just gotta learn to take it. This is the time of the year you take it."
Despite the exasperated feelings within the Caps' locker room about the penalties, there wasn't the sense that they needed wholesale changes moving forward – other than a need to adjust and stay out of the box.
They don't believe they've allowed the Rangers to wrest control of this series from them.
"We really wanted to win that one," Bradley said. "It would've obviously put us at a pretty good advantage, but we knew it wasn't gonna be an easy series, and now we have to get ready for Game 4 and forget about what's happened the last three games."
But by committing so many penalties and coming up on the wrong end of this coin flip, the Caps let the Rangers back into the series.
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