What, you thought it was going to be a sweep?
You thought the New York Rangers, who finished with one fewer point than the Capitals during the regular season, were going to roll over after losing two games in Washington? You thought the Rangers, who collected five points in three regular-season meetings with the Capitals, were going to go away that easily?
Nope, that's not the way it works. Rangers coach John Tortorella, who can be testy and comes off as awfully smug from a distance, wasn't just being his brash self when he told reporters the best-of-seven series was "close" despite the two losses at Verizon Center.
It is close, and it got closer when New York beat the Caps on Monday at Madison Square Garden. It can get closer Wednesday night, when the teams meet again in New York. Even if the Caps do win, still consider it close. Message to Caps fans: Breathe easy about this one when the horn sounds on a fourth victory. And not a second sooner.
Few, if any, sports are as fickle as hockey when it comes to what you might see on a nightly basis. The Caps and their faithful don't have to go too far back for an example of that. Washington, the top seed in 2010, led Montreal 3-1 in the opening round. After splitting overtime decisions in the first two games, Washington won the next two 5-1 and 6-3. No way, no way the Caps were losing that series. They got three goals in the final three games and lost all of them. In the final two, Washington was credited with 54 and 42 shots. And got one goal each time.
That's hockey. Celebrate when it is time to celebrate. Fret when it is time to fret. Don't look back. Otherwise, the fact that the Caps have lost five of the previous seven series where they've taken 2-0 leads might scare you. The fact that they beat the Rangers in five — after losing Game 3 — the last time they had a 2-0 lead shouldn't cheer you. Nor should the fact that the Caps haven't lost successive playoff games since being swept by Tampa Bay in 2011.
What should cheer you is that the Caps are the better team right now and have been playing like the better team in this series. Again, that could all change starting Wednesday night. The gap isn't so wide it can't be closed. But through the 188 minutes of this series thus far, the Caps have looked more capable of closing out the Rangers than vice versa.
New York's one edge is slight. The Caps' Braden Holtby has proven himself to be a stellar goaltender. The Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist may be the best in the business. His performance in Game 2, won by the Caps 1-0 in overtime, was brilliant. Most every other team loses that game 3-0 or 4-0.
There's no team tougher to beat than one with a good, and hot, goaltender. But the Caps did put three by him in Game 3 and it should have been enough.
While the Caps don't mind having a hot goaltender, they don't seem to be relying on one. They appear to have more offensive firepower. For much of the series, they've been better defensively. Their power play is better, despite how it looked to finish the game Monday night. Their penalty kill is better, though they'd do themselves a huge favor by not putting it to the test so many times Wednesday night.
Caps coach Adam Oates surprised his players by giving them Tuesday off. The team had planned to head to Newark, N.J., to practice at Prudential Center, since Madison Square Garden has to deal with a little playoff basketball. But Oates scratched that trip (which in traffic may have taken longer than a hockey game), deciding instead rest was a better option.
It's a good call. There's nothing to be gained by one practice at this point. The Caps aren't going to figure out anything new about the Rangers, just as the Rangers aren't going to figure out anything new about the Caps.
One thing the Caps won't have to worry about is the Rangers' good luck charm. Matt Harvey, the rookie pitching sensation for the Mets, is a Rangers fan and the team is 6-0 when he's present, which he was Monday night. Jay Horwitz, the Mets' public relations director, caused a bit of a furor when he tweeted that Harvey had been given permission to miss the Mets' game Wednesday so he could go see the Rangers. He was joking.
The Rangers will have to find a way to beat the Caps on their own.
"We've got to win one game on the road here and then go back home," Caps defenseman Jack Hillen said after Monday's game. "That's the mindset right now. We lost the game. You can't win 'em all, you know? You're not going to sweep every series, so the mindset is to win one on the road and move on."
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