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Rangers 1, Caps 0: Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. And so for the seventh time in their last nine Stanley Cup playoff series the Caps will play a Game 7. The Rangers assured that with a 1-0 victory at Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening. Washington’s checkered history in those games will leave its fans gasping for air for the next 24 hours. It’s why we love this sport – and hate it, too.

The recent versions of this club are 2-4 in Games 7s, including last spring’s loss to the Rangers at MSG on May 12. Overall they are 3-8 in Game 7s and 2-6 at home. You can’t make this stuff up. The Caps may not be the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Indians or the Buffalo Bills. But their postseason heartbreak ledger is spectacularly underrated.

Still, this is a team that has won elimination road games in Philadelphia (2008), New York (2009), Pittsburgh (2009) and Boston (2012). Missing out on the chance to put the Rangers away Sunday stung – but at least the Caps have a second chance. As long as they leave the frustration of this one behind them and don’t carry it into Monday night, they’ll have a chance. At 2-8-1 in early February they would have taken this in a heartbeat.

“You’d love to play as few games as you can, especially in this rink,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’d be great to win, but there’s nothing you can do about it now. We’re a team that stays positive and [has] a pretty short memory, so that’s good.”

Added star winger Alex Ovechkin: “Nothing you can do. You’re not gonna cry and say it’s over. Tomorrow is huge.”

2. So what, exactly, went wrong on Sunday? You don’t really need to ask, do you?

“Penalties. Start with penalties. Let’s end with penalties,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “That’s the only thing that stunted our game tonight was it killed our momentum, it killed our progress, it killed our top players who kill penalties. You can’t keep killing six, seven penalties a night and expect to win hockey games.”

Hard to argue with any of that. Brouwer was steamed, but he also wasn’t abdicating responsibility. He admitted the Caps deserved some of the five they took, lamented the retaliatory ones and, yes, was incredulous that the Rangers weren’t whistled for any.

“Seems a bit outlandish” was how Brouwer put it. But he also insisted Washington wasn’t helping itself, either. If you use your speed well then New York will be forced into taking penalties that officials have to call. But by taking penalties players like Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro – who aren’t on the penalty kill – are essentially stapled to the bench. The players who are on it, like Matt Hendricks, are wasting energy they could be using later in the game. That message will be driven home – again – by the coaching staff at Monday’s meetings.

“I look it at it kind of like that bird that sits on your shoulder. It’s always chirping in your ear,” Hendricks said of the push to be more disciplined. “You need that. It’s one of those aspects of the game, one of the details in the game that always needs to be reiterated, especially in the playoffs when emotions run high and frustrations run high. We need to be a more disciplined hockey team.”

Fair or not, it is galling to some in that locker room – and Oates has mentioned this publically – that a team which plays the way New York does can get away with being the NHL’s least penalized team and has committed only 19 penalties through six games. Some will point out that their best defensemen, players like Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman etc. – are swift skaters who are usually in good position. That’s definitely true. But the truculence factor is high with that club, too. It’s an interesting dynamic.

“It’s tough. For the last couple of games you’re battling hard and not getting results and our power play is not getting a good chance to get out there, which is unfortunate,” Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “It’s tough to say too much about that. But I don’t think [the Rangers are] playing a perfect game by any means.”

3. So the goalies were pretty good on Sunday. Henrik Lundqvist had 27 saves for New York en route to a shutout. Braden Holtby had 28 for Washington and the only one that beat him was a deflection.

Lundqvist wasn’t tested consistently often. But he made some beauties when he had to, including a save on Ovechkin on the rush as he cut towards the middle maybe 20 feet in front of the net. Later in the second period Ovechkin drilled Girardi and set up his own scoring chance in front that Lundqvist spoiled. And even when Lundqvist missed – as he did on an attempted pokecheck later in the second – Ovechkin couldn’t quite corral the puck as he attempted to wrap home a backhander.   

“You expect him to close [the door] every single night,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Just the way he plays, obviously, one of the best goalies in the league. We’re lucky we have some of the best scorers in the league and the best playmakers. I just hope that our guys are better than their guys.”

Ovechkin said he didn’t regret his decision to deke on that second-period play. He just missed it, but the chance was there. Ultimately, that’s what matters against a goalie like Lundqvist.

“In a big game like this you don’t want to fall behind early so that’s what I focus on,” Lundqvist said. “As the game moves on I can see the way [Holtby is] playing in the other net, we had a lot of great chances, especially in the second period, but he kept it 1-0. Then I know I have to be sharp. You put a little extra pressure on yourself.”

Indeed, Holtby was good, too. In the third period he made a pad stop on Ryan Callahan during a 2-on-1 rush on the power play with Rick Nash. He swatted away a backhand attempt by Brad Richards in tight late in the second period and stayed strong on a handful of goal mouth scrambles as New York crashed his crease. It didn’t hurt that he helped Washington kill all five penalties.

4. Other than the play, Mrs. Lincoln…The Caps can’t take too many positives out of this one given it was a loss in a critical game and all the penalty drama that ensued. However, they did feel okay about their play 5-on-5. That is a tiny shard to build on as they head into Game 7.

Again, New York was relentless clogging the front of the Lundqvist’s net and making it difficult to get any shots through.

“It’s bodies there, but when you get the puck through it can touch anybody,” Washington center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ve just got to keep shooting.”

But Backstrom also noted that the Rangers were the better team in the first and second periods. That has to change tomorrow if the Caps want to keep playing hockey and not pack their gear for the summer.

“You’ve got to give New York credit. They did a good job of holding us at their blue line,”Hendricks said. “There was opportunity for us to put pucks in deep, and we didn’t do that; where we tried to rely on our skill, which, a lot of time it works. Tonight it didn’t. We need to get back to the basics a little bit tomorrow and try to outwork them.”

Given how good Lundqvist is in net, the best bet for Washington, according to Hendricks, is to get pucks out of the defensive zone effectively, get in foot races and try to get New York’s blueliners out of position that way.

“You try to be active to find pucks. There’s definitely bodies in front of you but if you’re active and you try to find it it’s a lot easier,” Lundqvist said. “I felt like I was patient and I waited for the pucks. Holtby was playing really well. He kept them in the game, especially in the second period, so I felt this would be a tight one, maybe one or two goals tops. My focus was to try to shut it down. It definitely helps when the guys play like that in front of you. We really paid the price.”

5. Ovechkin finished with five shots on goal, had another three attempts blocked and missed the net four times. He was credited with three hits and – as dubious as that stat can be – was a definite physical force. Just ask Girardi, who was leveled into the boards with a clean hit. Still, Ovechkin wasn’t exactly declaring this his best game of the series even if the scoring chances were there. He has just one goal and an assist in the series. In Game 7 Washington needs Ovechkin to find a way to break through again after four consecutive scoreless games.

“Well, we lose, so you can’t say it’s my best game,” Ovechkin said.

The Rangers, especially Lundqvist, were aware of Ovechkin at all times and it still didn’t matter. He could have easily scored a goal or two as he used his speed to enter the zone and was constantly probing the defense for opening on the rush.

“I don’t really have to look for [Ovechkin]. I know he’s going to show up sooner or later, he always does,” Lundqvist said. “He had a few chances tonight. I feel like every game he comes up with a couple of big chances. Obviously, he’s one of the key guys for them. I think the first two lines they have, they go a lot across so you have to be aware of that. The other two lines just work hard. It’s definitely a challenge for all of us, obviously for me, too.”

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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