NEW YORK — Playoff success never is a tidy matter for the Washington Capitals. Regardless of seeding, venue or series advantage, their history is marked by struggle and, ultimately, disappointment this time of year.
Closing out the New York Rangers in Game 6 Sunday at Madison Square Garden would have been a rare sign of postseason force. Instead, Rangers center Derick Brassard penned his name in a familiar script by scoring on a deflected slap shot in the second period of Washington’s 1-0 defeat.
So there will be Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal at 8 p.m. Monday at Verizon Center. Really, what other outcome could there be?
The Capitals‘ only consolation from Sunday’s loss is the blueprint it provides them for victory in their seventh Game 7 in the past six years. And in the wake of another undisciplined performance, the top item on the checklist was obvious to everyone inside the quiet visitors’ dressing room.
“Start with penalties; let’s end with penalties,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “The only thing that stunted our game tonight was it killed our momentum, it killed our progress, it killed our top players who kill penalties. You can’t keep killing six, seven penalties a night and expect to win hockey games.”
The Capitals killed five power plays Sunday, to be exact, and took two more penalties after the final horn. New York, meanwhile, was not penalized during the game but also took two roughing minors in the postgame scrum.
Washington played short-handed for 9 minutes, 16 seconds — 44 seconds of which were a five-on-three. Although the Rangers‘ power play slumped to 2 for 26 in the series, penalty-killing requirements plagued Washington’s entire lineup.
“Some guys sit on the bench, don’t kill penalties,” coach Adam Oates said. “It makes it hard for them to get into their game.”
Added fourth-line forward and penalty killer Matt Hendricks: “I think energy guys are spending their energy on the penalty kill instead of the energy on the forecheck and maybe drawing penalties that way.”
Capitals players blamed Sunday’s penalty woes on a mixture of poor discipline and questionable officiating. Still, they generated some quality scoring chances. So there’s the ominous possibility Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 27 shots, is in top form and could steal the decisive game. The Capitals were shut out for the first time in 29 games.
As the series returned to Washington, Lundqvist was encouraged by the Rangers‘ ability to force overtime in two of their three losses there.
“You know you’re close,” he said. “It’s just a bounce, and you win it, so we know we can do it. We have to play a really hard and smart game because they always come a little hard, I feel like, in their own building. If we can build on this one — I thought from the get-go we did all the things we talked about, the forecheck and the first goal.”
The Capitals know they must counter that forecheck to create more chances than the few they had Sunday.
“There was opportunity for us to put pucks in deep, and we didn’t do that; where we tried to rely on our skill, which a lot of time it works. Tonight it didn’t,” Hendricks said. “We need to get back to the basics a little bit [Monday] and try to outwork them because they’re a hardworking hockey team.”
Of course, the Capitals could use a jolt from their captain. Alex Ovechkin’s season-long scoring drought extended to more than 350 minutes. He last scored in Game 1.
He came close to tying the game in the second period. He received a pass in the slot and deked Lundqvist by going to his backhand. But Ovechkin’s momentum led him into a bit of a bad angle, and he missed an open goal by shooting into the outside of the net.
“That position, you have to make decision quick,” Ovechkin said. “I think I make a right one, but I missed it.”
So the Capitals have a chance to avenge last season’s Game 7 road loss to the Rangers. They hope playing this one on home ice will give them an edge, but they have lost three of four decisive games at home since 2008.
The lone guarantee, as usual, is victory won’t come easily.
“The margin of error is very slim,” Oates said. “You want to minimize it as much as possible. Hopefully we’ll start off a little bit better [Monday] and draw blood first.
“Let’s make sure we get our legs going, get into our rhythm. Same things we talk about every night.”