May 2 vs. New York Rangers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:30 pm TV: NBCSN Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: The Capitals Report, Live podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 3 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 3 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (42-32-8), 92 points
New York Rangers (51-24-7), 109 points
Game 3, Eastern Conference semifinal series (Series is even, 1-1)
After splitting the first two games of the series in New York, the Capitals and the Rangers head south to continue the Eastern Conference semifinal series in the District. The Caps host the Rangers in Game 3 on Wednesday night at Verizon Center.
New York and Washington slogged through a defensive battle in Game 1, a contest in which the two teams combined for a mere 32 shots on net. The Rangers won that one by a 3-1 count, and then the Caps evened the series with a 3-2 win over the Blueshirts at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
The Caps grabbed a two-goal lead in the first period of Monday’s Game 2, getting goals from their fourth and third lines, respectively. Washington nursed that lead into the third before New York’s Ryan Callahan tied it at 2-2 with a power play goal. The Caps won it on Alex Ovechkin’s power-play goal, the third game-winning power-play goal the Caps have mustered in their five postseason victories this spring.
Washington’s power play is just 4-for-26 (15.4%) in its nine playoff games this spring, but the extra-man tallies the Caps have scored have been big ones.
“Especially when [the Rangers’] power play just got one,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble, of Ovechkin’s goal. “That’s why those guys are out there at the time. They’re who our coaching staff feels are our best chance to score. He’s your big-game guy and you’ve got to have him scoring, otherwise you’ll get stuck in the playoffs and you won’t advance.
“It’s all timing. At various times of the playoffs, it’s just how you get through. Great timing, timely goals and great goaltending at times. All those little things.”
The Caps got great goaltending in Game 2 from 22-year-old rookie Braden Holtby, who bounced back from a sub-par game in the series opener. Holtby has now gone 25 straight NHL appearances – including the playoffs and the regular season – without suffering consecutive losses.
New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist – a finalist for both the 2011-12 Vezina and Hart Trophies – has been excellent in these playoffs. He ranks fourth among all playoff goaltenders with a 1.77 GAA and a .938 save pct. But a rare Lundqvist gaffe resulted in Washington’s second goal in Game 2, a Jason Chimera strike that was also fueled by the Washington winger’s blazing speed.
Monday’s win puts Washington right where it was after two games of its first-round series against the Bruins, even 1-1 and owning the home ice advantage. Now, the Caps will vie to keep that advantage by taking the next two games in Washington.
“I think we just have more of a commitment and some understanding that if you’re not going to start off well on the road in a playoff situation, then you’re going to put yourself in a huge hole,” says Knuble. “Both times now, both series, we’ve been able to get out of the first two games 1-1. That’s’ a great moral victory for the team who is starting on the road. Then you come back and you’ve got Games 3 and 4 at home. It’s a great way to be, 1-1 versus 0-2 coming into Game 3.”
Although they entered the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs with the worst regular season road record (16-21-4) of any of the 16 postseason entrants, the Caps have taken four of six road contests to start the playoffs. They’ve played just three games at Verizon Center, winning only one.
Washington was 5-1-1 in its last seven home games of the 2011-12 regular season, and the Caps were 26-11-4 at Verizon Center on the season, third best among all Eastern Conference clubs.
The Rangers forechecked the Capitals hard in the first 10 minutes of both games in New York. In Game 2, the Blueshirts outhit the Caps 21-10 in the first period, laying 10 of those hits on Washington blueliners. The Caps had difficulty getting the puck out of their own end cleanly, and were only able to get their footing when seldom-used (3:07 in Game 2) New York defenseman Stu Bickel put a puck right on Joel Ward’s stick in the Washington zone, effectively starting a 3-on-2 rush that the Caps finished with a Knuble goal to take a 1-0 lead and alleviate some of the pressure.
“They buzzed us real good at the beginning of the game,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer, “but we were able to bounce back, weather it, get a goal and then another quick one right away. Guys were fighting hard. And we knew that we weren’t going to be able to go down 2-0 to this team and be able to have a good opportunity to come back. We needed to tie [the series] up, and come back home. As the [playoff] rounds go on, you’ve got to keep getting more intense. You’ve got to keep elevating your game. [Monday] night, we took good steps towards elevating our game.”
Expect the Rangers to elevate their own on Wednesday as they try to wrest home ice advantage away from the Capitals a game after losing it. New York has a punishing forecheck, and it can take a toll in wear and tear over a long series. The best remedy is for the Caps to establish a strong forecheck of their own, but Washington’s defensemen are aware of New York’s forehecking tenacity.
“I don’t really know if you can solve it,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “It’s something that they’re going to do all the time. I think something that is important is recognizing earlier when they’re going to dump it and when they’re going to try and come on you as a rush. And when they are about to dump it, you’ve got to get back quicker.
“We do notice that there are a few ways that you can get out of the zone a little cleaner, but sometimes you have to cheat a little bit to get back or find a different way to get to that puck first because they come with so much speed and they always finish that first check. You’re going to get hit no matter what. You’ve got to make sure that you’re not getting thrown off by those hits. You just absorb it and get back into the play.
“That’s a good forechecking team. There’s not a whole lot you can do.”
The first goal has been key to the Caps’ play thus far; they’re 5-1 in the six games in which they’ve scored the game’s first goal in the 2012 playoffs. Washington is 0-3 when it surrenders the game’s first strike.
Notes: Caps left wing Jason Chimera, who scored the team’s second goal in Monday’s win, now has four goals in seven career playoff games against the Rangers. That includes a double-overtime game-winner in Game 4 of last spring’s first-round series between the Capitals and the Rangers. Chimera has two goals in 24 career playoff contests against all other foes … The Caps blocked 24 shots to New York’s 14 in Game 2 after both clubs blocked 15 in the series opener. New York (184) and Washington (178) are the top two shot-blocking teams thus far in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.