Breaking Down How the Washington Capitals Close out the Rangers
For the Washington Capitals, this is not unfamiliar territory.
Two-game series leads have been disastrous for this franchise in the past, and one needs to look no further than Washington's postseason exits at the hands of the Penguins and Canadiens in 2009 and 2010, respectively, as proof of this.
But with three opportunities to eliminate the top-seeded New York Rangers, Barry Trotz has to feel confident about his team's chances of moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It's been a very tight series thus far, and here's a look at what the Caps must do to close out the Rangers.
Excellence in Net
For all that's been said about Henrik Lundqvist being a deciding factor for the Rangers in this series, it's been the play of his counterpart Braden Holtby that has been the story thus far.
Through four games, Holtby has surrendered just five goals, and three during Washington's lone defeat in Game 2, so New York has yet to seriously dent the 25-year-old's armor.
It's not as if the Rangers have been short on quality chances, as Holtby was forced to make a spectacular save on Carl Hagelin's penalty shot to preserve the Game 4 victory.
Lundqvist is perfectly capable of stealing a game or two and helping New York force a Game 7, but if Holtby continues to play like he has, this series won't last much longer.
More Production from the Top Line
After stealing Game 1 by scoring both of Washington's goals, the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Joel Ward has been limited to one goal combined, and none since Game 2.
That hasn't been a problem due to the contributions of Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jay Beagle and the rest of Washington's bottom-nine, but the Caps can't rely on that trend to continue.
Ovechkin has demonstrated the impact he can make in a game on any given shift, as both of his goals against Lundqvist were spectacular. While he's the most dangerous quick-strike weapon on the team, Backstrom's obviously the engine of Washington's offense, and more is needed from him going forward.
He began the postseason by leading the Caps in scoring against the Islanders, but with no goals against the Rangers, Backstrom is certainly capable of doing much more.
Washington boasted the league's top setup man in Backstrom and leading goal scorer in Ovechkin during the regular season, and while it would be unfair to expect them to produce at that clip, Lundqvist's life will be much more difficult if the pair can produce another goal or two.
Keep the Stars at Bay
During the 2014-15 regular season, New York's offense was spearheaded by former Rocket Richard Trophy winner Rick Nash, who finished third behind only Ovechkin and Stamkos in goals.
But as has been the case during each of the last two postseasons, Nash has failed to make an impact offensively on a consistent basis, and has found the net just once through nine games.
Aside from Nash, Martin St. Louis has been a non-factor for much of the series as well, and has a paltry three assists this postseason.
While Washington's cause is aided by speedy Mats Zuccarello's continued absence, holding New York's pair of Canadian Olympians off of the scoreboard is vital.
Better Starts on the Road
With two of the potential three remaining games in this series set to be played at Madison Square Garden, Washington simply has to perform better early on the road.
In Game 1, the Caps managed to weather the storm despite New York's 12-7 advantage in shots during the first period, largely due to Ovechkin's momentum-shifting goal late in the frame.
They weren't quite as fortunate during the following game at MSG, as Chris Kreider put the Rangers ahead for good less than a minute into the opening period, and Dan Boyle gave them a two-goal cushion minutes later.
What's perhaps even more troublesome than Washington spotting the home team a two-goal lead is the 15-4 advantage in shots the Rangers held after 20 minutes of play.
Overall, Washington's minus-16 differential in first period shots should be an indication of how much the Rangers controlled the play during the early stages of both Games 1 and 2, and that must change for Trotz's troops going forward.
The Caps have been a nightmare for opposing teams in the defensive zone this postseason, leading the NHL in blocked shots through 11 games.
Furthermore, Washington was dominant in this regard against New York in Game 4, out-blocking the defensively sound Rangers 25-7 during the 2-1 home victory.
The style of play installed by Trotz is at the heart of this shift away from the run-and-gun mentality of previous editions of the Caps, and it has required a concerted effort from all corners of the lineup.
The additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen have helped, but Game 4 hero Burakovsky's key block in the third period is just one example of Washington's overall commitment to defense.