The Washington Capitals will be on a quest to save their season Monday evening, and that will hinge on their ability to fix their suddenly suspect offense.
In two games against the New York Rangers, the typically potent Caps have been humbled by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and the defenders in front of him. Already down 2-0 in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, if the Caps don’t find ways to beat Lundqvist at Madison Square Garden in Game 3, a season full of promise will be one more misstep from vanishing in a heap of missed opportunities.
“I could probably give every [hockey] cliche known to man right now, and they are probably all true,” defenseman Brian Pothier said. “[We need] more traffic. They do a great job of blocking shots, so we need to find lanes. We need to make sure we’re covering Lundqvist so he doesn’t get clean looks at the pucks and get to the rebounds.”
Problem No. 1 for the Caps has been getting their shots on net. While Lundqvist has faced 70 shots in two games, 50 have been blocked, and 40 have missed the target.
Alex Ovechkin has had 19 shots on net in the series, but he has had 17 blocked. Mike Green has had nearly twice as many attempts blocked (nine) as stopped by Lundqvist (five). In Game 2, Pothier had five knocked away by New York skaters without getting one shot to Lundqvist.
“You have to readjust to get it past the first shot blocker,” Pothier said. “That guy is coming out and doing a good job and getting in the lane, so you need to readjust. But the thing with New York that they do so well is they line up and the center falls in behind, so if you get it by [the first] guy, then you have to contend with that guy. And if you get it by that guy, they have two [defensemen] who do a good job of fronting our forwards. They do a good job of almost creating like a wall.”
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau put it in simpler terms.
“Miss them, quite frankly - it is a shoot ‘em where they ain’t type of thing,” he said. “They do a really good job of dropping back and being ready to block shots.”
Another issue has been the quality of the ones that actually get through. The Caps have put 35 shots on Lundqvist in each of the first two games, but nearly half of them (17) in Game 2 were from beyond 35 feet. Those shots can be valuable if there are bodies in front of Lundqvist making it difficult for him to see the puck, but elite goaltenders don’t miss perimeter shots they can see.
There were instances in which the Caps had the necessary players in front but not consistently enough to make Lundqvist uncomfortable.
“We need to just get more and more people toward the net and find the rebounds,” Pothier said. “We just need more presence in front of the net.”
Should the Caps have enough players near the crease, finding rebounds is the next part of solving their offensive woes. There were several occasions in both games when the puck caromed off Lundqvist and slipped past a member of the Caps - either because he didn’t see it or couldn’t reach it.
Part of that is Lundqvist’s ability to control his rebounds and steer them out of danger. But part of it is also having more bodies near the net to cover more places where the puck can go.
“I think there are lots of rebounds,” forward Brooks Laich said. “In Game 1, there was at least a half dozen where I was in front and the rebound just bounced two feet out of my reach. It was the same thing [in Game 2]. … We just have to be more hungry and more aware around the net.”
There are going to be times when the Caps do everything right, but the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist is still going to find a way to keep the puck out of his net. With the season teetering on the edge of disaster, the Caps must be wary of their troubles becoming a mental issue in Manhattan.
“I think for us to get back in this series, the main thing we have to do is avoid getting frustrated,” Laich said. “I think we’ve played two very good hockey games. I’ve been happy with our effort and how hard we’ve played; we just haven’t capitalized on our opportunities.”