NEW YORK – Three days ago, the Capitals were looking like a team capable of running the table on the New York Rangers.
That table has turned.
Thanks to a relentless forecheck, dozens of blocked shots and costly mistakes by the Capitals, the Rangers have rebounded to tie the best-of-seven series at two wins apiece.
The series, which is now down to a best-of-three, returns to Washington on Friday night with the momentum clearly in the Rangers’ favor.
“They are never going to quit and they have a pretty good team,” said Rangers forward Derick Brassard. “We respect what kind of offense they can bring, but at the end of the day we wanted it more. We competed harder.”
The Capitals won the first two games of the series because they were able to push the pace from the back end, generating much of their offense from their defensemen. But in the two games in New York, the Rangers’ forwards forced the Capitals into hasty decisions with the puck.
That was clearly evident in Wednesday night’s 4-3 loss, in which the Rangers outhit the Capitals 38-20. Twenty-five of those hits were generated by Rangers forwards.
“We’re getting slowed down in our own end and we weren’t in Game 1 and 2 and that’s when we had success,” said Troy Brouwer, who scored his first goal of the series to tie the score at 2-2 with 17.1 seconds remaining in the second period.
“It’s difficult because they’re putting pucks in real good areas. Holts [Braden Holtby] is good at playing the puck, but when you put it outside the trapezoid you can’t go get it. “That means we have to hold them up a little more and try to give our D-men that extra half second because they have some big forwards that finish their checks and it’s tough to go back and get pucks when you’re getting hit every time.”
At the other end of the ice the Capitals had a very difficult time finding shooting lanes in front of New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Caps generated 82 attempts at the net, but only 30 found their way on goal. Another 33 were blocked and 19 more missed the net.
The Caps’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson was particularly frusttated by the Rangers’ shot blocking. Eight of Ovechkin’s nine attempts were blocked or missed the net. Backstrom and Johansson combined for three shots and had four others blocked or miss the net.
“Our line have to play better,” Ovechkin said. “When we have a chance to go play in their zone we have to use it. Tonight we didn’t do it.”
“They had their moments, but they could probably generate more,” Caps coach Adam Oates said of the Caps’ top line. “You need to give [the Rangers] some credit there. You have to fight through the frustration. It happens.”
And then there were the mistakes.
Holtby made the most glaring on the Rangers’ first goal, roaming out of his net and having an outlet pass intended for Eric Fehr knocked out of the air by Taylor Pyatt, setting the stage for Brad Richards’ open netter.
“Fehrsie was at the far blue line and it would have been a breakaway,” Holtby explained. “I thought I made the right play but I should have gotten it a foot higher so he has to take a high stick on it. He made a great play on it.”
Oates said he would have liked to see Holtby make a safer play up the wall, but added, “he saw something and we trust him.”
While Holtby’s giveaway was the most glaring, Jason Chimera’s interference penalty at the end of the second period was the most costly. The Caps had knotted the score with second-period goals by Mathieu Perreault and Troy Brouwer but Chimera shoved defenseman Anton Stralman at the end of the period.
“It’s tough when you have to start the third period on the kill,” Broueer said. “They have 15 or 20 minutes to go over what they want to do. They move the puck well, they pick seams on us and they made a good shot.”
Holtby called Dan Girardi’s goal 59 seconds into the third period a “sinker ball from the point on a one-timer.” He could have called it a “momentum changeup.”
The Rangers kept their foot on the gas and made it 5-3 on a goal by Derek Stepan before the Caps made a late push that fell short.
“We knew this was going to be a tough series,” Holtby said. “We learned last year that this team we’re playing doesn’t give up. Coming in we didn’t care how many games it took to win as long as we win four.”