NEW YORK — Through three games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Washington Capitals showed they are a better team than the New York Rangers in taking a 2-1 series lead. Five-on-five, the Caps outshot the Rangers 80-66 and carried the play.
The hiccup in the Caps’ domination came during a Game 3 loss when they took six penalties and ruined their chances of taking control of the series.
“Obviously we can’t take as many penalties,” center Jay Beagle said. “We’ve got to try and stay out of the box. That makes it way easier on ourselves, and just stick to our system, stick to our game plan. And if we … keep rolling five-on-five, we’re going to be in good shape.”
That should be the mantra going into Wednesday’s Game 4 at Madison Square Garden: that the Caps could handle the Rangers as long as they don’t fall victim to self-inflicted problems such as Monday’s parade to the penalty box.
“If you take that many penalties, they’re bound to get good looks, they’re bound to score,” right wing Troy Brouwer said Tuesday. “We’ve got to clean up that aspect of our game, continue to work hard, continue to finish our checks, but do it without taking penalties.”
The Rangers wondered where their offense was through two games, when they came up empty on seven power plays. New York scored one power-play goal in six chances in Game 3 and another just as a Caps penalty expired.
“You have a team as skilled as the Rangers, they’re going to find a way to score on the power play eventually,” right wing Eric Fehr said. “It’s tough for us, but we’ve got to find a way to kill those penalties off.”
Even for the Caps’ unit that has killed 34 of the past 37 penalties dating to April 13, it’s not that simple.
“It wears your guys down,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “You get some of your top players out there on the PK as well, and when you’re killing that many penalties it’s tough. It’s tough to battle back the rest of the game.”
The Caps spent more than 10 minutes short-handed during the first half of Game 3, which also made it difficult for coach Adam Oates to find ice time for skill players such as Alex Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro.
“It factors into the minutes,” Oates said. “It’s hard, and the minutes get spread out and that’s not really our type of game. We don’t want to trade power plays.”
The Caps’ type of game is grinding down the Rangers by rolling four lines and possessing the puck in the offensive zone. That worked well in Games 1 and 2, but Monday was a harsh reminder of what happens when there’s no flow.
“Just felt like the first two periods all we were doing was killing,” Fehr said. “I don’t even remember a five-on-five shift with my line, which is frustrating. We have a really good team that enjoys playing all four lines. We have the ability to take over games as a unit and we weren’t able to roll over the lines.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby expressed concern about the Caps’ “loose” mood going into Game 3, and that manifested itself in different ways.
“Penalties [are] a good sign if you’re not quite focused enough, mine especially,” Holtby said, referring to his tripping call that led to the Rangers‘ power-play goal. “Just little things like that, if you’re not quite perfectly on, it doesn’t go your way and penalties are a big part of that.”
By the time the Caps stopped taking penalties (all six were in the first 27 minutes), it was a climb with the Rangers buzzing. Defenseman John Carlson played a game-high 5:38 short-handed and was on the ice for three of four goals against.
“Anytime you’re taking penalties, it’s losing momentum and it’s tough to get that flow of the game,” defenseman Mike Green said. “Guys get tired, and we can’t have that.”
Or other guys can’t get their legs going. Ribeiro, Ovechkin and center Mathieu Perreault did not play a single second short-handed and then were counted on to produce in the third period.
“We’ve got some really skilled players sitting on the bench watching and it’s tough for them to get a feel for the game,” Fehr said. “At the end of the day, we’re tied in the third period. We’ve got to find a way to win it, and we couldn’t do it.”
Game 3 was the first time since March 9 that the Caps had to face six short-handed situations. Even if they get more calls the rest of the series, spending so much time on the penalty kill is not a recipe for success.
“I think some of the calls are dicey,” Oates said. “Every game there’s small calls in each direction and you feel a little bit slighted on the calls. But obviously discipline is an important thing. … We just can’t take too many penalties.”