Before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the thinking went that the Washington Capitals’ special teams would, at worst, be able to grind out a stalemate against the New York Rangers’ power-play and penalty-killing units.
The Capitals’ power play, rife with snipers, was the second-best in the league this season, while the Rangers had the best penalty-kill unit in the NHL. OK, so you hope to get one goal from the man advantage and call that a success. The Rangers’ power play? That didn’t seem worth much worry.
New York scored on just 13.9 percent of its chances during the regular season, the second-worst mark in the league. While the Capitals haven’t been stellar at killing penalties (their 80.6 percent success rate was 17th in the league), the Rangers didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to produce many power-play goals, the lifeblood of most postseason offenses with even-strength space so hard to find.
But the Capitals’ penalty killers at least said they knew better. And after the headache the Rangers’ power play turned out to be for Washington in New York’s 4-3 Game 1 win, it’s a safe bet Washington will spend a fair amount of practice time the next two days trying to isolate the Rangers’ special teams prowess to one game.
New York scored two power play goals as part of a three-goal run to take a 3-1 lead in the second period, popping a pair of easy wrist shots past Jose Theodore. Then, with the score tied 3-3 in the third period following a Capitals rally, New York killed off a power play and created a two-on-one once Markus Naslund emerged from the penalty box, and the winger fed Brandon Dubinsky for the go-ahead goal.
The Rangers burned off one more in the game’s last five minutes, sealing the win.
“Our power play has fought us the past couple of months,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “It’s going to have to score a big goal at a certain time for us to stay in there.”
The power play improved slightly when Tortorella replaced Tom Renney on Feb. 23 but still has been one of the Rangers’ biggest problems late in the year. None of those struggles were evident Wednesday night.
Some of the Capitals’ problems came from the Rangers generating more traffic in front of Theodore than the Capitals got on New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers’ second power-play goal of the second period, in particular, relied on the coverage Scott Gomez provided in front of Theodore. He skated into the Capitals’ slot and left a drop pass for Naslund. While Gomez skated to Theodore’s stick side, Naslund flipped a wrist shot to the other side of a wall that now included Gomez as well as the Capitals’ Tom Poti and Matt Bradley, who both got stuck in front of Theodore during a botched line change and helped shield the goaltender.
Considering the Rangers had just nine even-strength shots through two periods and finished with a total of 21, it’s worth asking how different the game might have turned out if not for New York’s two surprising power-play tallies, especially with the difference in the number of penalties.
The Rangers’ seven infractions, three for holding, were three more than Washington had, and helped the Capitals get two power-play scores of their own.
There was plenty for New York to nitpick. But as hard a time as the Rangers have had scoring power-play goals, they won’t complain about special teams too much on a night where they got two of them.
“I’d rather see us play five-on-five,” Lundqvist said. “The games are going to be really tight, so you need a couple lucky bounces. Today we had them, so we’re happy for that.”