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Rangers 4, Caps 3: Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. Let’s start with the penalties. There’s really no other place to begin in a Stanley Cup playoff game where one team takes six minor penalties. That is the ultimate death by a thousand cuts. Your top players are forced to help on penalty kill duty and that can sap their energy for later in the game when they really need it. But they’re also not really in any kind of rhythm 5-on-5 because they can’t get regular shifts.

Your top penalty killers are on the ice too much, especially the defensemen. You wonder if that was a factor late. Both John Carlson and John Erskine – who was also dinged with a big hit by New York forward Ryan Callahan late in the first period before returning early in the second – were on the ice for both Rangers third-period goals (Arron Asham, Derek Stepan). Fatigue may have played a role there. Alex Ovechkin even took a shift with the fourth line in the second period just to get his legs going.

“I doubled him up one time on the fourth line because there had been too long without him getting any ice,” Washington coach Adam Oates said. “You don’t want to lose guys because they get a little cold. It’s tough when the other team, they’re flying at you and you get put on the ice.”

 2. Before the game Caps goalie Braden Holtby said he was uncomfortable with how loose his team was during the morning skate.

“It’s good to a point. I’m not sure we want it as loose as this morning. It’s still playoff time and you never want to get comfortable,” Holtby said. “When you’re starting to get loose, you can tell guys are starting to get comfortable and whatnot. We’re going to make sure in pre-game meeting that everyone is focusing in, making sure that we’re doing the right things to prepare, as if we’re down 0-2.”

Washington certainly played well early. Nicklas Backstrom’s goal 4:06 into the game. But by then Ovechkin had already been whistled for a roughing penalty 63 seconds into the contest. It was a sign of things to come. And some were lazy penalties. Jay Beagle used that exact term to describe his hooking penalty in the second period. Heck, Holtby himself took a tripping penalty and that led directly to Derick Brassard’s power-play goal. He wasn’t placing blame on everyone else and shirking it himself. Holtby said once he realized that Rick Nash wasn’t skating hard around the net for a wrap-around attempt he shouldn’t have followed through with his stick. That led to an easy tripping call for the referee. He was just noting that penalties are a good sign that a team’s focus isn’t quite where it needs to be.

“That game was far from our best,” Holtby said. “We weren’t as tight as we should be. That happens. We have the team and the character to learn from that and make sure we change that.”

3. Not getting off a single shot on the 6-on-4 power play – with Holtby pulled from his net, obviously – wasn’t an ideal way to end this one. The Caps had shook off deficits of 2-1 and 3-2 and felt like they had it in them to force overtime with another one. Ovechkin was visibly upset as he and his teammates skated off the ice, waving his arms. We’re assuming here, but he wasn’t yelling at a referee in his vicinity so it seems probable he wasn’t happy with the hesitation Washington showed during that final 1:54. Or maybe the Garden faithful were just razzing him.

But a 6-on-4 isn’t always an easy scenario for an NHL team. There are 10 bodies on the ice, not including the goalie. They’re all crammed into the offensive zone and shooting lanes – especially against this Rangers team – are hard to come by. That’s the conundrum, though. Because it’s a power play, if you give up the puck then New York can fling it down ice at the empty net at will. There’s no penalty for missing the way there would if the teams were at even strength. The Caps were going to have to score a dirty goal there by shooting and crashing the net. But with so much time left players become reluctant to fire pucks into the corner and essentially risk giving up possession.

Oates was a skilled player himself. He completely understands that hesitation. But in that situation your best players have to get over it. Fire the puck at Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, crash the net and hope for a lucky bounce.

“They were protecting [Lundvist] so well that you don’t want to throw the puck away because then they can shoot it down, get an empty-netter,” Oates said. “So they try and make a smart play. It’s hard because those type of guys are such perfectionists, they just don’t want to throw it at the net. And it’s something you’ve got to try and coach them through that. You know what, sometimes we’ve just got to get it in there, make them try and surround him where [we get] good rebound angles.”

That didn’t happen and New York survived to take Game 3 as the Madison Square Garden crowd exploded.

“They’re doing a good job blocking it, but we need to get it through obviously,” Backstrom said. “But I don’t think we lost the game there…they scored two power play goals. We’ve some areas we need to clean up for sure, but other than that, I think we played a pretty good game. We’ve got to stay positive.”

4. Slowly but surely the Rangers are getting healthy, It’s not 100 percent health. That is the Stanley Cup playoff equivalent to seeing a unicorn. But adding defensemen Marc Staal back into the mix helps. Every little bit helps. Now they just need rugged forward Ryane Clowe (concussion symptoms) and New York will be as close to full strength as it’s going to get before the offseason hits. Whenever that is.

Anyway, it was Staal and Dan Girardi who checked Ovechkin’s line most of last spring’s playoff series and they did as good a job as can be expected. But he hadn’t played since being struck in the right eye with a puck on March 5. There was no way to tell what Staal was going to contribute. In the end, he played second pairing minutes (17:17) with Anton Stralman. Staal was on the ice when Jack Hillen’s shot was deflected past Lundqvist by Beagle. It wasn’t a perfect night. The Rangers don’t need perfect.

“He’s so well-respected in the room,” New York coach John Tortorella said. “This is two major injuries that he’s come back from. Even before he steps on the ice, that really helps your room, he’s just so well-liked…He made some really big plays at key times too. Just the speed of the game, that’s what he’s going to have to get used to.”

Added Staal: “I thought I would be more nervous than I was. I think the confidence is going to grow the more I’m out there and the more I’m in game situations.”

5. Don’t let ‘em tell you this series is just boring, grind-it out hockey. Yes, other series – see Penguins-Islanders – may be more free-flowing , but there was some serious skill on display tonight at the Garden, too: Brassard in the slot on a nifty pass from Mats Zuccarello; Mathieu Perreault sensing defenseman Mike Green drifting lower into the slot and feeding him a slick pass that was wristed past Lundqvist with ease; Brassard’s third-period assist where he endured a big hit from defenseman John Erskine, but whipped a pass out front to Asham, who didn’t look like a grinder when he buried the shot past Holtby; and the great keep in the offensive zone by Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh late in the third period. The puck worked its way around to Rick Nash and his pass in front was deflected home beautifully by Stepan for the eventual game-winning goal.

6. Erskine missed the final 4:18 of the first period after Callahan used his speed to deliver a big hit to a much bigger man. He returned to the ice at 3:43 of the second period and appeared no worse for wear – though he was on the ice for those two goals late.

“It was a hard hit,” Oates said. “He wasn’t feeling fantastic, they tested him. He was fine.”

In other injury news, we saw Brooks Laich during the morning skate at MSG. He wasn’t taking part in on-ice activities, but was riding the exercise bike pretty hard in the brief glimpse we had of him. Laich had sports hernia surgery last month and is slowly working his way back. But until you see him on the ice don’t get too excited.

Rangers forward Darroll Powe made it through all of two shifts before his night ended following a collision with Caps forward Joel Ward. Powe was caught with an inadvertent elbow and crunched into the boards – there was no penalty on the play – and collapsed to the ice at one point as he tried to skate to the bench. He needed help to reach the dressing room. Not good.

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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