Fans in Washington were treated to two extremely exciting hockey games this past week. Unfortunately for their hometown Capitals, they must hope for at least one win in the Big Apple if they hope to take in another game at Verizon Center.
The scrappy and defensively gifted Rangers took two straight from the Capitals on their home ice, grabbing a choke hold on the series and snaking the home ice advantage. This doesn't come as much of a surprise to many who follow the NHL with religious intensity. Many believed the downfall of the Capitals was their lack of defense, toughness, and goaltending. They might be right.
Washington was outmuscled in the first two games of the series, failing to gain puck control along the boards and in the offensive zone. This, in Game One, led to two goals by Scott Gomez and Brandon Dubinski that eventually sealed the Game One fate of the Capitals.
Jose Theodore's shoddy play didn't help either. The former Vezina Trophy winner allowed what many believe to be two soft goals in the series opener, forcing Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau to insert 20-year-old rookie Simeon Varlamov in Game Two.
Varlamov was a pleasant surprise, to say the least. Although the Rangers only garnered 23 shots on Varlamov, he made all of the necessary saves to keep the Capitals within striking distance. The third-best offensive team in the NHL failed to dent the Rangers' twine and head to New York down two games to none.
So what has to be done for the Capitals to regain an edge in the series? Well, they must awaken that fiery competitiveness that surrounded them all season long. The Capitals, who dominated shots in the first two games, during the season were always the first men to the puck. They won face-offs and beautifully worked the puck up the ice, making opposing teams look foolish on the defensive end.
The Rangers, as it seems, have found the antidote: Get physical and hurry back.
The "dump-happy" Rangers know that the Capitals have the athletic edge and are much more skilled, yet the Rangers seem to have a more cohesive approach. Washington's skill players are attempting to win games on their own. They take bad shots and make silly passes. When they aren't shooting from the sideboards, they are giving the puck up much too easily.
And when a shot finally gets through (the Rangers have blocked nearly 50 shots in the series), no one is in front of the net to clean up the dirt left by the Rangers' netminder.
Washington has to be gritty, something that most of their finesse-oriented forwards would rather shy away from. When shots come in from the point, the Capitals forwards can often be seen standing to the side of the cage, waiting for that "perfect" rebound rather than making the Rangers' lives difficult by camping out in front of the net.
The Capitals love to be on the power play, and one advantage to frustrating defenders in front of their net is drawing penalties. The Capitals developed one of the most feared man advantages in the NHL this season, and it showed in Game One, despite a loss.
However, all is not lost for the boys in red. The Carolina Hurricanes began their Stanley Cup run in 2006 with two consecutive losses. Perhaps these first two games were a wake-up call to a Capitals team that was favored coming into the series nearly a week ago. The Capitals have all the physical skill, but the mental aspect will play a big part in the next couple of games.
Alex Ovechkin tried to gain a mental edge this morning when he took in the Rangers' morning skate from the Capitals bench. He was asked to take a seat in the stands if he wished to stay, opting for a smirk and a walk back to the dressing room.
"They're scared of me," he said.
They'll be a lot more afraid if Alex the Great and the Capitals get rolling.