Goaltender Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals will enter Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the same basic situation that they were in at this point in the quarterfinals. After three competitive games, they trail the series, 2-1.
At this point in the first round versus the Boston Bruins, the unripe goaltender had played 203:13 minutes and allowed six goals on 103 shots. So far against the New York Rangers, he has played 232:09 minutes, authorizing seven goals on 91 shots in that span.
Besides making a little more out of a little less within a slightly longer span of game action, inflated chiefly by triple-overtime in Game 3, there is one fundamental difference that points to the Blueshirts turning Cinderella’s clock to midnight within the next week.
Through the first three games of the opening round, the Bruins reaped two points out of Holtby from their top six. Rich Peverley had a goal and Patrice Bergeron an assist on separate plays in Boston’s 4-3 Game 3 victory.
Through three games in the second round, five of the Rangers’ top six have combined for a 5-8-13 scoring log. Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards alone each have yet to be held off a single scoresheet in the series.
And with his overtime strike in Game 3 being his first goal since Game 1 of the conference quarterfinals against Ottawa, Gaborik has merely broken another sheet of ice against Holtby.
Granted, Gaborik is only the fifth individual Ranger to have beaten Holtby. But the way he inserted Wednesday night’s sudden-death strike from within spitting distance of the goaltender continued an encouraging trend.
With the exception of a 43-foot slapper via Chris Kreider, another out-of-the-blue rookie making ripples in the playoffs, New York has burned Holtby by getting offensive personnel into the dirty-nose area.
Kreider’s goal, the eventual clincher in Game 1, was sandwiched by Artem Anisimov smuggling home a wraparound and Richards strolling Kreider’s pass in from along the walls and tucking it to Holtby’s right.
Although they could not cultivate the final tiebreaker in Game 2, the Rangers did valiantly delete a 2-0 deficit Monday night. The rally began during a four-on-four segment when Gaborik lured Holtby to the far post while Richards stood at the doorstep to direct Gaborik’s feed into the vacant slab.
Defenseman Michael Del Zotto subsequently slugged home a power-play conversion that Holtby had a minimal opportunity to stop due to Ryan Callahan’s screening.
Callahan in a perfect spot on the porch to rake in a rebound and open the scoring in Game 3, giving New York its second man-advantage goal of the series and a 1-0 lead. Gaborik was almost on the exact same patch of ice when he pumped home the winner.
Conversely, the Bruins had zero power-play strikes until the fifth game of the first round. And they were initially subsisting on strikes reminiscent of Kreider’s, coming off the sticks of Chris Kelly and Peverley.
They finally picked up the pesky traffic after the halfway mark of Game 3, but still could not get nearly enough out of their most leaned-on forwards.
With this round roughly half over, the Rangers have yet to hear from Carl Hagelin, but they are otherwise collecting passable contributions from their top six.
To his credit, Holtby continues to make a competitive staring contest out of each bout with Henrik Lundqvist the same way he did with Tim Thomas. But the more he succeeds or gives a certifiably valiant losing effort, the tougher it gets to follow up next time.
That holds especially true with the three-game point streaks of Gaborik and Richards, who already have four points apiece and combined for three goals versus Washington. Contrast that with the Bruins, who had Peverley leading the team with three strikes and five points in the entire seven-game struggle.
There was a time when Lundqvist had to wait out some postseason growing pains in showdowns with Martin Brodeur (2006), Ryan Miller (2007) and even Marc-Andre Fleury (2008). All signs point to this being his turn to inflict the same sort of lessons on Holtby.
As Thomas proved in painful fashion, Lundqvist will need help from his skating mates to make that come to fruition. But there has been no shortage of that from the Rangers as of yet, and the rate may even grow beginning with Game 4 on Saturday.