NEW YORK — By now the Washington Capitals are well-versed in the pageantry and madness that is Madison Square Garden. Monday night was their 10th playoff game in the “World’s Most Famous Arena” over the past three years.
They know all about how loud it can be when the New York Rangers are rolling and how quickly a goal can silence the crowd. Coach Adam Oates even addressed it with his players before Game 3.
“The crowd will be crazy and you’ve got to enjoy that,” he said. “As a player you’ve got to want that feeling and be prepared for them to be excited about it. You can’t lose control.”
The Caps got the full Garden experience in Game 3, losing and recapturing control throughout the night. After taking six penalties and failing to register a shot on a late power play, they left with a 4-3 loss that cut their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series lead to 2-1.
“Every time we had a goal they would come back and kind of deflate us,” defenseman Mike Green said. “We made a push; I thought we played well five-on-five. Just penalties and not executing at the end. We put ourselves in a tough position.”
Washington again failed to take a 3-0 series lead, a feat that has never been accomplished in 21 playoff series in franchise history. Instead, the Rangers have life going into Game 4 Wednesday night.
“It seemed like we were fighting back, fighting back and then they get something,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “Tough game. Just a lot of swings in momentum. Seven-game series now.”
Oates had his team prepared for “electric” playoff atmospheres at Verizon Center and on the road. Each time the Caps scored Monday night, the arena that once cascaded “Can You Hear Us?” chants at Bruce Boudreau fell silent.
It happened very early when center Nicklas Backstrom scored his first of the playoffs 4:06 into the first period. Backstrom’s tip of John Carlson’s point shot required video review while the situation room in Toronto looked for a high stick, but that just gave Rangers fans another opportunity to boo the call of a good goal.
Three first-period penalties by the Caps stunted their momentum and allowed New York to get into an offensive rhythm. Brian Boyle scored just after Joel Ward’s high-sticking minor expired, but that penalty-killing energy expended didn’t help.
"Obviously we can’t be in the box that much," center Jay Beagle said. "We were playing real well five-on-five. And it kills the momentum when we got to kill that many penalties and it hurt us."
Washington’s parade to the penalty box didn’t ultimately prove disastrous, but it contributed to its first loss in the series.
“We took too many early,” Oates said. “We got out of our rhythm and we use up minutes that we don't want to do for energy that maybe later on in the third period cost us.”
The Caps took six penalties in the game’s first 27 minutes, and the Rangers scored their first power-play goal of the series 1:23 into the second on a slick shot by center Derick Brassard.
The Caps’ kill had salted away New York’s first 10 power plays in the series, allowing just 10 shots during the first two games.
The Caps did just about everything they could on the penalty kill Monday night, though Brassard’s goal ended their streak. The Rangers are 1-for-13 on the power play through three games.
“They were trying to get some shots on net with some traffic and they probably did a better job,” Oates said.
Goaltender Holtby was a major reason why the Caps were even in the game. The Rangers, as expected, played like a team trailing two games to none, and Holtby took care of some offensive waves with 26 saves on 30 shots.
Holtby expressed concern after the morning skate about the Caps perhaps being too “loose” up 2-0 in the series. After the loss, the 23-year-old did not have a strong review of the overall performance.
“That game was far from our best. We weren’t as tight as we should be,” Holtby said. “Penalties is a good sign if you’re not quite focused enough.”
Holtby took responsibility for his tripping penalty, which led to Brassard's goal.
A brutal play by New York defenseman Michael Del Zotto helped the Caps’ cause late in the second period. He let Jason Chimera have the puck behind the net, and Washington was able to maintain pressure on the offensive zone. Green, who should have made a better play on Boyle’s goal, made up for it by blasting a perfect shot through a screen and past Lundqvist.
With the Garden quiet through the second intermission and into the third, the Caps lost control again on Arron Asham’s goal 2:53 into the third. But they got it back when Beagle deflected Hillen’s shot off a faceoff five-and-a-half minutes later.
After Game 2, defenseman Karl Alzner quoted “Any Given Sunday” about playoff hockey in saying “the inches we need are everywhere around us.” When Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh kept the puck in the offensive zone that inch set up the game-winning goal.
Seconds after the Caps couldn’t clear the zone, Derek Stepan deflected Rick Nash’s odd-angle shot past Holtby. With that, the arena erupted.
The Caps had several chances to tie it in the final two minutes thanks to a slashing penalty on Brad Richards. With Holtby off for an extra attacker, the power play went to work but did not register a shot in the final 1:54.
“We try to find the shooting lane and we didn't find it. It's blame on us,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who drew the penalty. “I think we didn't find the shooting lane and if we move the puck, we move the puck too slow.”
Unable to get the puck on net while skating six-on-four for well over a minute, the Caps were left to wonder about that missed opportunity. But they won't worry too long while still leading the series.
“It's obviously disappointing, but that's why it's seven games,” Green said. “It's unfortunate. We obviously wanted to be up three but we've got a lot of work to do, and we know that. We knew it wasn't going to be easy.”
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