This Rangers club was supposed to be a bad matchup for these Capitals. Big up front, racsally around the net, opportunistic offensively, a good defensive club backstopped by a premiere netminder. Turns out, the Capitals are a very bad matchup for New York. Through two games in this opening round series it’s the Capitals playing suffocating defense, getting elite goaltending, rolling difficult-to-match-up-with lines, and playing smart, disciplined hockey. The Capitals in fact are playing the Rangers’ game, and for added measure, attack with elite skill and difference-making depth.
This Rangers club doesn’t possess the skill level up front to threaten the Caps. They badly miss Ryan Callahan, but Chris Drury is skating limited minutes, invisibly, Marian Gaborik hasn’t been a consistent scoring threat all season, and early on Friday night Artem Anisimov blocked a shot up high and seemed hampered by a bum arm thereafter (he skated under 11 minutes on the evening). Through nearly 140 minutes of hockey in this series the New York Rangers have merely a single goal against Michal Neuvirth. And just 47 shots. Friday night they mustered just 3 shots on Neuvirth in the second period, and staring at a 2-0 hole on the scoreboard and in the series, managed just 6 in the evening’s final 20 minutes. The Rangers through two games seldom enjoyed sustained offensive pressure around Michal Neuvirth’s cage, and when they did earn good looks at Neuvy, he thwarted.
Rangers coach John Tortorella had no complaints of his players after Friday night’s 2-0 loss — “We got hurt by a [second period] surge tonight,” he suggested — but what may ultimately prove insurmountable for Tortorella’s offensive-starved squad is an inability to match up defensively with three strong Capitals’ forward lines. The Capitals in the series now have goals from their first three forward lines, and after Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, there’s a big dropoff in Blueshirt defensive reliability. On Friday night, it was the Capitals’ line of Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, and Brooks Laich that was the best on the evening. The unit had been coming on strong toward the end of the regular season. Friday night they announced themselves a force to be reckoned with this postseason. They are blinding fast, fiercely competitive for the puck, slick and slippery and sturdy down low. They are going to draw second and third pairing defensive units the remainder of the postseason. They could do real damage.
“We said before that we thought we had a good line and we could make a difference,” Chimera said in the victors’ locker room Friday night. “You look at all playoff series in the past and you always see third and fourth lines stepping up . . . We felt we played well in game one.”
It’s no great secret that one-line scoring is a recipe for a short stay in the postseason, and that the Capitals’ establishing two quality scoring lines — diversifying their attack — is the best recipe for preventing opponents from ganging up on Ovi and the top line. But what if this hockey club is witnessing the emergence of three quality, productive lines? Isn’t that a game-changer in the overall prospects for this postseason?
And on the back end, Scott Hannan is being Scott Hannan, John Carlson is being John Carlson, Mike Green is sharper than anyone reasonably could have forecast, and Karl Alzner is . . . emerging as a force. In the regular season he was Mr. Steady; early on this postseason he is a difference-maker in the Capitals’ end. He suddenly looks like an impact lottery pick blueliner.
Early on Friday word arrived of Dennis Wideman taking the ice at Kettler for a brief skate, after being hospitalized for fully two weeks. His head coach intimated that the much-missed rearguard could potentially play again in this series. Three dynamic lines . . . the likes of Mike Green, Scott Hannan, Wideman, and the dynamic duo guarding the back end and deftly distributing the puck out of harm’s way . . . and in Neuvirth, an early front-runner for Conn Smythe . . . dare I say it? . . .
Let’s worry about Sunday first.
But oh so suddenly, there is a mischievous vibe settling in about postseason possibilities. Philly and Pittsburgh have already lost home ice. Carey Price took battle one against Tim Thomas. Just sayin.
Washington through two games is skating with urgency and cohesion and selflessness — very winning traits in the postseason. The Caps are also taking care of the puck, especially in the neutral zone, limiting turnovers, and getting pucks deep and grinding the Rangers down with a commitment to taking the body. It’s impressive. And more and more, it seems as if this winning moment in money season is a grand culmination — of playing lots of tight hockey games in 2011, of adding astutely at the trade deadline, and most especially of getting every guy wearing a red sweater to buy into what Gabby’s preaching.
“They’ve been buying in since the middle of December,” Boudreau said of his team’s embrace of a defense-first system. “They just want to win. The important thing is that they get success. We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve won a lot of awards and that doesn’t mean anything to them now.”
“It goes back to the games we played in the regular season,” Mike Green noted in Friday’s postgame, alluding to the success the Caps are having protecting leads in tight affairs. “We’ve been in this position a lot this year. It hasn’t been blowout games . . . So it’s been comforting to know that we’ve played in enough games to know what to do now.”
Green has also taken note of the change in the Capitals’ room.
“I think there’s just a different atmosphere in the dressing room compared to last year, and it goes to show on the ice.”
The Rangers need the Capitals’ help to get back into this series — Neuvy needs to let in a softie, the Caps have to start turning pucks over. Even that likely won’t be enough. It’s not an enviable position. Meanwhile, Boudreau’s disciplined believers keep reminding themselves of the futility of feeling good prior to lining up for a handshake line, smiling.