NEW YORK | The Washington Capitals got a taste of what to expect from the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in Game 3. They knew the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series wasn’t going to be easy, and they prepared for a push in Wednesday night’s Game 4.
When it arrived, they couldn’t match it. Passes weren’t crisp and plays were sloppy. Meanwhile, the Rangers upped the ante in the offensive zone and forced mistakes.
Time and again, the Caps made them. The result was a 4-3 loss that evened the series at two games apiece.
“They were working harder. They were coming harder,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We didn’t have anything to combat that. They forechecked way better, they dumped the puck way better, they were hitting a lot more. And they were blocking everything that was shot or even dumped. They played a much better hockey game than they have.”
And the Caps played their worst game of the series in all facets. They couldn’t manage to break out of their zone cleanly and had few sustained attacking shifts for the first 30-plus minutes.
“They came out, tried to be a little physical. We talked about that,” Oates said. “You expect that, it’s their building, you’ve got to handle that little initial wave and then [our] power plays didn’t do anything. We got a little frustrated with that, and then we gave them a goal. So it was a lousy start.”
That “lousy start” included goaltender Braden Holtby coughing the puck up as he tried to send it down the ice. But even before that, the Rangers took it to the Caps, pressing them and wearing them down.
“We didn’t play good,” Alzner said. “We played bad for 45 minutes.”
In the process, they fell behind 2-0 and had to play uphill for much of the night, without top-six forward Martin Erat, who appeared to suffer a left wrist injury late in the first.
“It’s never easy coming back from two goals,” said right wing Joel Ward, who had his best game of the series. “But you got no choice. It is what it is, the score is up there. And we tried to fight back and get some chances in.”
The Caps deserve credit for taking advantage of some favorable shifts in the second period that allowed them to tie the score. When right wing Troy Brouwer scored with 17.1 seconds left before intermission, it looked like they would overcome the poor start.
Instead, an all-too-familiar problem cost them. Left wing Jason Chimera was called for interfering with Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman just before the buzzer. It stunted the momentum the Caps worked to build.
“I think the penalty, it’s a good hard hockey play Chimmer going to the net,” Brouwer said. “Unfortunately you take an interference penalty and it’s tough when you give them 20 minutes to go over what they’re going to do and probably even looked at video to see if there were holes in our game.”
Not even a hole but just a well-executed power play restored New York’s lead just 59 seconds into the third on a goal by Dan Girardi. A failed clear by Caps defenseman Jack Hillen a few minutes later contributed to Derek Stepan’s goal and the Rangers‘ first two-goal lead of the series.
“We were a little bit slow out of the gates after [Girardi’s goal], as well, and they were able to score another quick one,” Brouwer said, “and we spent the whole game trying to play catch-up.”
That’s not the way to succeed against the Rangers, who did their job in holding serve at home. Washington is 0-6 in franchise history when losing Game 4 to make it a 2-2 series. The Caps will try to make history beginning with Game 5 Friday night back at Verizon Center.
“Everybody knows it’s playoffs,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Nobody’s gonna give up right away. Doesn’t matter if gonna be score, but right now we go home and go and play against them with our fans and in our building. It’s gonna I hope be much better for us.”
The Caps have to hope their showing back home is better than Wednesday night, when they were outshot 21-9 to start the game and could never find consistent rhythm. This was not the same kind of domination at five-on-five that Washington enjoyed in the first three games, and the rest of the series will likely hinge on a chess match between Oates and John Tortorella.
“They made some adjustments, so we’ll have to adjust now,” Alzner said.
Whether it’s on the power play, which was stagnant in going 0-for-2, or five-on-five where the Rangers finally seemed to carry things, the Caps must adjust quickly.
“It’s a three game series now,” Holtby said. “We’re trying not to think too much about momentum. We have a job to do: win four out of seven. We knew it was going to be tough and we’ll regroup and we’ll be ready to play.”