May 5 vs. New York Rangers at Verizon Center
Time: 12:30 pm TV: NBC Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 10 a.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 10 a.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (42-32-8), 92 points
New York Rangers (51-24-7), 109 points
Game 4, Eastern Conference semifinal series (Rangers lead the series, 2-1)
Wednesday’s Game 3 between the Capitals and the New York Rangers was virtually the equivalent of two games. Tied at 1-1 after 60 minutes of play, the two teams battled into multiple overtimes and into the wee minutes of Thursday morning. By the time New York’s Marian Gaborik finally ended the proceedings with the game-winning goal just minutes away from the end of the third overtime period, the two teams had played 114 minutes and 41 seconds of hockey.
“We played good,” says Caps forward Jay Beagle of Game 3, “and obviously it’s disappointing to lose, especially in the third overtime. It was a good game. We’ve just got to stay positive through it.”
Fortunately for both sides, the schedule called for two days between Games 3 and 4. So the two clubs took Thursday to rest and heal their weary and battered bodies before reconvening for practice on Friday. They’ll drop the puck for the all-important Game 4 just past noon on Saturday at Verizon Center.
With Monday night’s win in Game 2 at Madison Square Garden, the Caps had wrangled the home ice advantage for the series away from the Rangers. By virtue of their win in Wednesday’s marathon match, the Blueshirts have re-taken the home ice edge. The Capitals are now exactly where they were after Game 3 of their first-round series with the Boston Bruins, down a game and in serious need of a win in the critical Game 4.
“I think any bit of experience helps,” says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. “Obviously, it’s going to be a tough game. [The Rangers] are a hungry team right now and we really need this win. We need to get back to our basics. We didn’t play a bad game the other night. I think if we play again like that, we’ll get rewarded.”
Wednesday’s game was the third-longest playoff game in Caps history and the longest ever at the big barn on F St. It was a tough loss to be sure, but the Caps have to park it and move forward swiftly and surely on Saturday.
Washington is just 1-3 on home ice in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs and the Caps are 0-4 when giving up the game’s first goal.
“It’s a tough series,” says Washington blueliner Roman Hamrlik. “Everybody knew it wasn’t going to be easy. [We need to] be ready and be mentally prepared for a big start. I think when we have a good start and we score the first goal, we are a pretty tough team to play against.”
Given that New York’s top four defensemen all logged more minutes on Wednesday night than any of the Capitals did, it would also be beneficial for the Caps to forecheck the Rangers hard and early in Saturday’s game.
“It’s definitely going to be important to get the puck deep and forecheck hard,” says Beagle, “and finish the checks when you get a chance. It was a grind last game. The more physical you are, the harder it’s going to get throughout the series.”
“We’ve got to make sure those guys have no free passes,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “We’ve got to make sure it’s not easy on them. It’s the same story every round, you’ve got to try and wear down their defensemen. You’re got to make them turn, you’ve got to make them get hit. It’s just no fun when you’re going back to get the puck and you’re getting hit every time.”
Until Gaborik scored the game-winner on Wednesday, the Capitals had gone 186 minutes and 11 seconds without allowing a goal in five-on-five play. During that span, Washington surrendered a pair of power play goals and one four-on-four tally to the Rangers.
“We’re trying to limit their odd-man rushes as much as we can,” says Beagle.”[New York’s defensemen] jump in on every play and try to make it a 4-on-3. We’re just trying to go a good job at having a fourth guy come back and really making it hard for them to get odd-man rushes. They had some shifts where we were hemmed in our zone for a while, but they were all perimeter and we weren’t really giving them much. We’ve just got to continue doing that.”
The Caps did have some lengthy shifts where they were pinned into their own end and the Rangers worked the cycle game well. Limiting those shifts on Saturday will help ease potential fatigue on Washington’s own defenders.
“You’ve got to try to read the play,” says Brouwer, of breaking up the cycle. “You’ve got to try to jump when you know that they’re going to cycle that puck back down. You try and cut it off as much as you can.
“We did a good job last game of not giving them anything through the middle; they were cycling on the outside. Even those long, sustained cycle shifts that they had, they weren’t getting many shots. Guys are comfortable in the defensive zone with the systems, making sure that we’re in shooting lanes and guys are boxing out in front. Even though they were getting a couple minutes in our zone at a time, we were still able to not let them get too much pressure around their goal.”
Nine of the 10 games Washington has played in these playoffs have been decided by a single goal, and in eight of those games neither team has had more than a one-goal lead at any point in the contest.
“It’s close, how tight the league is,” notes Hamrlik, who broke into the NHL in 1992. “The teams are pretty close. It doesn’t really matter whether you finish second or seventh.
“I think we’ve been playing for the last 10 games of the regular season a pretty good hockey game. We kind of brought that to the playoffs. We play as a team. I don’t see this team’s play as selfish as it was before, let’s say when I played with Montreal and played against the Capitals. There’s lots of teamwork with this team and that’s why we are successful.
“I think we’re playing better defensively and focusing on playing defense and it’s creating good offense. The game changed a little bit when [Caps coach] Dale Hunter came. He wants forwards to come back in the neutral zone, forwards coming back to the defense, so they’re helping a lot. We don’t want to spend too much time in our zone and play good defense, solid defense. We don’t give too many [scoring] chances.”
The Caps have stymied the Rangers effectively in five-on-five play, so avoiding coincidental minors and other infractions is key. Washington’s penalty killing corps has been effective 88.2% of the time in these playoffs, but New York has scored twice with the extra man inthe three games in this series. The Caps permitted just two power-play tallies in seven games against Boston in the first round.
“Our best penalty killer has been our goaltender,” declares Hamrlik of Holtby. “He’s not great; he’s been outstanding. It’s nice to see something like that.”
Holtby has been brilliant. Dating back to November of 2010, he has now gone 26 straight starts without suffering back-to-back setbacks. If the Caps keep playing as well as they have in five-on-five situations and if they stay disciplined, Holtby should have a good chance of keeping that streak going.
“I think the Rangers are a different team than Boston,” says Hamrlik. “They forecheck hard with two guys and finish their checks. We have to have a good start and hopefully score the first goal and play with some confidence early in the game. Stay focused in playing five-on-five hockey, don’t make any bad penalties. We have a chance to win the game when we’re playing five-on-five.”
Down 2-1 in the series heading into Game 4 in the first round against the Bruins, the Caps rallied to win the next two. Those are the only consecutive wins the Caps have had in these playoffs, and they need a win on Saturday to avoid their first pair of successive setbacks.
“It gives us some confidence,” says Brouwer of the team’s experience against Boston. “It’s a little bit different style of play, a little bit different mentality in the second round here. Teams play hard, they play real hard, especially New York.
“We had some good jump going into Game 4 of the last series. [Saturday] you should see the same thing.”