1. You’re not really surprised, are you? This is the way it always is with the Capitals. Even up 2-0 in a series and looking like a solid bet to advance, things seem to just…happen. It’s not fair to pin history on this group of players so I won’t go that far. But the Rangers were going to have a response at Madison Square Garden the last three days and – while having six power plays on Monday helped – they were ready for Washington and fought their way back into this series.
“It wasn’t the spot we wanted to be in, but I knew right from the start it was probably going to be a long series,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “If anybody thought we were going to sweep this team or win in five, I would’ve laughed. It’s just another hockey game.
Wednesday’s Game 4 victory for New York evened the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal at 2-2 and makes Game 5 in the District on Friday a pivotal turning point. The Caps don’t want to come back to this building facing elimination. They came through with flying colors in that exact spot in 2009. But this is a different, more mature Rangers team. And they beat the Caps here in Game 7 of the second round last May.
“Everybody knows it’s playoffs. Nobody’s gonna give up right away,” Washington forward Alex Ovechkin said after his team fell a goal short. “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.”
That’s the plan. Then again the plan was to leave here with at least a split and that didn’t happen, either. The Caps were sloppy through much of the first two periods. There were far too many neutral zone turnovers and goalie Braden Holtby made a bad decision on a clearing attempt that cost his team a crucial goal.
“It’s a three-game series now. It’s the same,” Holtby said. “We still have home-ice advantage and we knew it was going to be a tough series. We learned last year that this team that we’re playing doesn’t give up and we don’t either.”
2. Holtby is very, very good at handling the puck. But it does get him in trouble sometimes. We saw it late in the regular season against Ottawa when he played a puck behind the net and tried to thread a pass to defenseman Karl Alzner to his left. It went wide, however, and right to his old AHL nemesis Cory Conacher, who buried the shot into an empty net to pour salt in the wound. Washington lost that April 18 game 3-1.
It happened again on Wednesday. Holtby – playing the puck at the bottom of the left faceoff circle with a calmness that suggested he was on the golf course – saw teammate Eric Fehr all alone at the opposite blueline down the ice. It was such a tempting target. Hit Fehr in stride and the Caps have a golden scoring chance against Henrik Lundqvist. But when you’re looking down ice things in front of you can get lost. Holtby didn’t see Taylor Pyatt anticipating that exact play and sneaking in from the left. Holtby fired and Pyatt reacted, knocking the puck out of the air. The net was decidedly empty. Carl Haglin had the puck land at his feet and blasted a shot that defenseman John Carlson did well to block in his best Holtby imitation. But while the goalie scrambled back into his crease, veteran center Brad Richards was in the right spot to slam home the rebound.
“I thought I made the right play,” Holtby said. “I just need to get that a foot higher in the air, make him take a high stick. He made a great play knocking that down. He doesn’t make that, that’s a breakaway the other way. That happens.”
Holtby’s teammates weren’t piling on, either. He has moments like this and sometimes it’s cost them games. But his stickhandling through the first two games was a big factor in neutralizing New York’s ferocious forecheck, too.
“No, it’s happen,” Ovechkin said. “We still have lots of game and everybody make mistakes. He makes mistake, but how many time he save us? No pressure for him. He’s all right.”
Added teammate Joel Ward: “No, guys make mistakes at times. Obviously it wasn’t a play he was trying to put on a guys’ twig. It is what it is, but he’s our guy. He’s our go-to guy all year and we’re excited to have him as our goalie. We know he’s gonna bounce back and have a heck of a game.”
Holtby finished with 30 saves on 34 shots. Once the Caps rallied to tie the game 2-2 late in the second period he made some big ones. But his teammates gave him little chance on either Dan Girardi’s power-play goal early in the third period or on the game-winning goal by Derek Stepan.
Marcus Johansson was knocked into by Carl Hagelin and then collided with Backstrom. While those two spun in circles, the puck came to Ryan Callahan, who found Hagelin headed directly to the net. He played give-and-go with Stepan, who finally scored against a helpless Holtby.
Those two could be forgiven. But even Washington coach Adam Oates refused to be too critical of Holtby’s earlier gaffe.
“Yeah, you know what, he had the poise to make the first guy gamble,” Oates said. “Probably in hindsight he could’ve made a better decision, gone up the wall. But he saw something and we trust him.”
3. A lot is made – and rightly so – of New York matching top defenseman Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi against Ovechkin and the top line. That duo may not be the most physical pair, but they can skate and that makes life harder for Ovechkin and company. Ovechkin finished with one shot on goal and his linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson had a combined three. New York blocked five Ovechkin shots. He wasn’t the only one who had trouble getting shots through in the first two periods. But the Caps need more from him.
“I think our line have to play better,” Ovechkin admitted afterwards. “When we have a chance to go play in their zone we have to use it. Tonight we didn’t do it and I think we have lots of opportunities to score goals.”
But he was only going so far crediting McDonagh, who earlier this week claimed the Caps’ captain was tired late in Game 3, and Girardi.
“We just didn’t play well tonight. Our line. And they didn’t do something special,” Ovechkin said.
4. Washington forward Martin Erat was hurt in Wednesday’s game. Erat, acquired at the trade deadline from Nashville on April 3, was tracking Stepan when that player was drilled by Ovechkin. Erat appeared to get his left arm caught with Stepan’s right arm. He whiplashed to the ice and most of his weight landed on his left arm moments after his glove was ripped off his hand. Erat lay in the goal crease and then immediately left the ice for treatment. It didn’t look pretty, though the injury could be anything from a shoulder to an elbow to a forearm to a wrist.
No word from Oates, who would say on that Erat had an upper-body injury and will be re-evaluated Thursday in Washington. There are options if the second-line left wing can’t play in Game 5 on Friday night. Eric Fehr moved up from third-line right wing to fill in on Wednesday. He’s done that before already this season. Ward took Fehr’s place on the third line – a spot he is also comfortable in. The key question is who will take the fourth-line role.
On the active roster are left wings Wojtek Wolski and Aaron Volpatti. Wolski is far from a bottom-six grinder so that may not be a fit. Volpatti fits that role to a tee, though he isn’t as skilled as Ward or left wing Matt Hendricks. Other options? How about Joey Crabb, who played 26 games with the Caps this season. Crabb has spent the last 17 games with AHL Hershey, but the Bears saw their season come to an end in the first round of the AHL playoffs on Wednesday against Providence. Everyone is available, if needed, and 2012 first-round pick Tom Wilson is another intriguing option. Crabb had five goals in just five Calder Cup playoff games. He’d be a perfect fit on the fourth line at right wing, a position he held earlier in the season with the Caps anyway.
Wilson, 19, is a top prospect who had a dominant spring in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs (nine goals, eight assists, 12 games). He also had a goal in three playoff games with Hershey in his pro debut. But it might be a bit much to ask him to step into the Stanley Cup playoffs and contribute right away, especially in limited fourth-line minutes. Really not seeing any other forward recalls, though. If the Caps don’t like Wilson or Crabb they’d be better off just sticking with Volpatti or Wolski.
5. The toughest penalty of the night belonged to Washington winger Jason Chimera. You just can’t take a roughing call in the final seconds of the second period after your team has just scored a tying goal to claw its way back into the game. Brutal. Oates again defended Chimera, though it was also obvious he’d committed a penalty, too. Did it change the complexion of the game? After all, the Rangers scored just 59 seconds into the power play in the third period to take the lead.
“It really didn’t,” Oates said. “We just scored a goal and then also we get a chance with a couple seconds left. He’s going to the net hard and he pushed the guy. It’s a penalty for sure. He’s just pushing the guy to try and get a rebound.”
Maybe. It’s a moment in a game as Ovechkin is so fond of saying. But the Caps spent the entire off day on Tuesday talking about having better discipline following a six-penalty Game 3. Chimera didn’t show it on Wednesday and it cost his team.
“I think the penalty, it’s a good hard hockey play Chimmer going to the net,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “Unfortunately you take an if 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 there were holes in our game.”
6. Adjustment time! Early in the series New York’s forecheck was neutralized in part because Holtby is so good at playing the puck. But in every series there are adjustments. The Rangers have made a few to foil Holtby’s skill – in addition to his own mistakes. There have been a lot more cross-ice dump-ins the past two games. Put the puck in a spot where Holtby can’t jump at it and you give yourself a better shot. The Rangers have adjusted. Time for the Caps to do the same.
“It’s difficult because they’re putting pucks in real good areas,” Brouwer said. “Holts is good at playing the puck but when you put it outside the trapezoid he can’t go get it so that means we have to hold up a little bit more, try and give our D-men that extra half second because they got some big forwards to finish their checks and it’s tough to go back and get pucks when you’re getting hit every time.”
Not that the Caps can simply get in New York’s way. That’s the path toward a dozen interface calls. But stand them up at the blueline and they lose speed going around.
“It’s a big part of the game is puck recovery and trying to get pucks back when you dump them because you’re not going to be able to carry them into the zone clean every time,” Brouwer said. “They did a good job with adjustments and that’s what you’re going to see with long, extended playoff series.”
Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14