Desperation was there from the hop Saturday afternoon, with the Washington Capitals looking nothing like a team that just lost to the New York Rangers in a marathon Game 3.
“After losing a three-overtime game, it could’ve been one of those things where we had a lapse. But we didn’t do that,” forward Keith Aucoin said. “We came out and played hard: It was a must-win game yesterday. You lose to go down 3-1 going to New York, your chances are not very good.”
In beating the Rangers 3-2 in Game 4 on Saturday, the Caps ensured they wouldn’t be facing elimination in their Eastern Conference semifinal series Monday at Madison Square Garden. But it might’ve done even more than that.
“It’s one of those pivotal games that I think changes the whole look of the series,” defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Changing the look meant more of the same by the Caps, from a commitment to shot blocking and tight defense to solid goaltending from Braden Holtby. Naturally, it didn’t hurt that left wing Alex Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green scored in the same game for the first time since Oct. 30, 2010.
“That’s huge. Obviously, people I guess have been talking about it, that we need to step up,” Backstrom said. “If you work hard, good things happen to you, somebody told me, so you’ve just got to keep working and then the puck will find the net.”
Green’s game-winner and the victory in general were “really needed in the grand scheme of things” against the Rangers, forward Brooks Laich said.
Even though there are a few players left from the Washington team that came back from a 3-1 deficit against New York in 2009, that’s not a hole anyone wanted to be in.
Instead, this is a three-game set, just like the Boston Bruins series, but this time with a berth in the conference finals on the line.
“We just won at home, it was a big game, and now we’re going in with the momentum into their rink, versus losing and them having all the momentum and possibly being able to finish us off,” forward Jay Beagle said. “It’s a huge win, and the series is tied and we got momentum.”
The series shifted thanks to some key adjustments. Laich alluded to seeing some things on video that the Caps might be able to exploit, and they did so by putting pucks on net from the corners and cutting down on the Rangers‘ ability to block shots.
New York finished with just seven blocks, by far its lowest output of the playoffs.
“Obviously, they’re really good at blocking shots, and they feed off blocking shots and going the other way and getting odd-man rushes when their defensemen step up into the play,” Aucoin said. “We wanted to make sure that if we had the chance, we get it to the net. But when we didn’t, we had to get it behind the net and start a cycle and get the puck to the net. We wanted to make sure we didn’t start any breakouts for them.”
They didn’t. And the Caps blocked 26 shots to help out Holtby and frustrate the Rangers. That’s just a consistent part of how coach Dale Hunter’s group has won in these playoffs, so don’t expect that to change.
“We stick with the plan. We played this team already four times. We know how they play,” defenseman Roman Hamrlik said. “I think [Saturday] was a great example how we’re supposed to play and everybody brought [their] ‘A’ game. That’s why we were successful.”
It’s a recipe to be successful in Game 5 and beyond in this Eastern Conference semifinal that has proved to be just as close as the Bruins series. Three of four games between seventh-seeded Washington and No. 1 seed New York have been decided by one goal.
“It’s not a big difference if they are better or we are [the] better team. It’s there, and we have to go and take it,” Hamrlik said. “[Monday] is who wants it more and who’s going to be more disciplined and stick with the system.”