And just like that, we've got a series.
Through the first two games they only managed to beat Caps goaltender Braden Holtby once. Their effort was so poor that even Holtby admitted “It wasn't a hard game for me.” (via Washington Post)
Down two games to none, the Rangers returned to New York a battered team. The Capitals had outplayed them in every facet of the game except for goaltending, and although the next two games were on home ice, it was clear this series was Washington’s to lose.
But against all odds—and despite a slow start—the Rangers took Game 3. Their forecheck improved and they finally found their scoring touch. Game 4 was even better; the Rangers established long periods of offensive-zone pressure, and Ryan McDonagh’s ability to neutralize Alexander Ovechkin made the Capitals a much less dangerous team.
Hard work and home-ice advantage turned this series around, and though it’s even at two games apiece, the Rangers will have to win at least one game in Washington if they’re going to advance to the second round.
They improved in Games 3 and 4, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. They remain too inconsistent to put together a full 60 minutes, and that makes them a vulnerable hockey team.
As the Rangers prepare for a pivotal Game 5, we’ll take a look at the three adjustments they’ll have to make to their game if they’re going to win this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
Michael Del Zotto
Throughout this series, the Capitals have been an undisciplined hockey team. They've given the Rangers 17 power-play opportunities through four games; six of which came in Game 3.
Though the Rangers converted on one of them, their inability to consistently score on the power play almost cost them the game.
The final score of Game 3 was 4-3, and if it wasn't for a third-period goal by Derek Stepan, the Rangers and Caps probably would have gone to overtime. If the Rangers' power play had been more proficient, they would have put that game away long before the second period ended.
The same can be said for Game 4. Leading 1-0 late in the first period, the Rangers were awarded a two-man advantage, but a lack of movement and quality shots saw the power play expire without a goal.
Although the Rangers would score again midway through the second period, they once again found themselves protecting a one-goal lead as regulation ended; something they could have avoided if their power play had been more effective.
Heading back to Washington, the power play becomes even more important, not only because goals are hard to come by five-on-five on the road, but because a big kill by the home team can energize the crowd and change the game’s momentum.
We saw this already in Game 1. Halfway through the second period, it was a 1-1 game. The Rangers went on the two-man advantage, failed to score and in turn energized Verizon Center.
The Caps went up two goals less than five minutes later.
So it’s vital that the Rangers begin to convert more regularly and grab some of that man-advantage momentum on the road. Their power play may end up being the determining factor in this series.
The NY Rangers, collapsing
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is the best in the business, and there’s really only one way to beat him: net-front traffic.
Everybody knows this, and opponents are not shy to speak about it openly before playing the Rangers. Obstructing Lundqvist’s view is key.
The Capitals are no different. In this series, at least half of the Caps’ goals have come off screens or deflections.
So why do the Rangers feel the need to play a collapsing defensive system that essentially helps their opponents by screening their own goaltender?
I don’t know.
But what I do know is that they’re playing with fire. Their decision to sit back not only makes things harder on Lundqvist, as he constantly has to look through five players to find the puck, but it allows their opponent to move the puck freely on the outside. That means they’re likely to have long stretches of possession before they begin their all-out assault on the net.
Whatever happened to head coach John Tortorella’s “Safe is Death” philosophy?
Yeah, he encourages forechecking, but the team’s defensive instructions are anything but aggressive. With a goaltender as good as Lundqvist, they can afford to take chances in the neutral and defensive zones because they've got the world’s best behind them.
Furthermore, these gambles will lead to more scoring opportunities. When you've got your entire team sitting in the slot of your own end, you’re not setting yourself up for many quality counterattacking breaks. You’re just waiting for your goalie to swallow it up for a faceoff.
Avoiding the in-zone collapse helps the Rangers address nearly all their five-on-five issues. The more the Rangers take away, the less momentum the Caps get, and the wide pressure will force Washington defenders into making mistakes, which will allow the Rangers to transition quickly to offense.
The collapse was the Rangers' undoing in last year’s playoffs; will it be in this year’s, too?
Karl Alzner and Rick Nash
Coming into this series, the Rangers’ prized summer acquisition, Rick Nash, had only four games of postseason experience.
He’s often been ridiculed for not only his inability to carry his former Columbus Blue Jackets team into the playoffs more than one time, but for his poor showing in his single appearance.
2008-09 was the only time in the Blue Jackets’ history that the organization qualified for the playoffs, and it was as brief as it could possibly be. They were swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings, and Nash only scored one goal.
In his first regular season with the Rangers, Nash was impressive. He finished in the top 10 in the NHL in goals, and his third-period dominance helped the Rangers secure points on numerous occasions.
But his playoff inexperience remained a question. Could he carry his strong play over into the playoffs and provide the Rangers with the goals they so desperately needed in last season’s Eastern Conference Final?
Right now, all signs are pointing toward no.
Nash has, honestly, looked like a fish out of water. His battle level is nowhere near where it needs to be, and he’s constantly being pushed off the puck.
That’s not very Nash-like.
His gigantic frame and strength make him one of the hardest players to strip of the puck, but the Caps are doing it with ease.
If he does get some time and space he promptly tries to skate through a mob of defenders, and before long, the puck is back on the stick of his opponents.
And what’s most worrisome is that, except for a late-game chance in Game 2, Nash hasn't come close to scoring. A lone assist is the only thing he’s got to show for the first four games of this series.
Something has got to change.
Even Tortorella acknowledges that. You probably noticed Nash didn't play so much in the third period of Game 3. So did I. Not only was he a nonfactor on the offensive side, but he was a minus-two.
It takes a lot for Tortorella to bench his best third-period performer in a playoff game, but Nash needs to reevaluate his game. Torts, too, will have to do his best to get the big guy going, because Marian Gaborik isn't around anymore. Nash is this team’s primary goal scorer. He’s got to get going and fast.