Never before in their playoff history had the Washington Capitals bolted out to a commanding, stranglehold 3-0 lead in games in a seven-game series. Sunday in New York they missed perhaps their best chance ever. How costly a missed opportunity remains to be seen.
It was 0-0 after one on Sunday — a fine position for a road hockey club in almost every instance, but especially for the Caps yesterday, skating against a desperate squad like the Rangers were. It was 1-1 after two, and the Caps had survived an all-timer of dramatic postseason scares — a potentially horrifying lead goal surrendered with just one-tenth of a second left in the stanza. Video review averted a momentum disaster, and you were left thinking: 20 solid minutes and this series could be, for all intents and purposes, over. Even after the Rangers took the lead near the 8-minute mark of the third, the Caps responded with a power play dagger with under 5 minutes to play. You got the sense that in an overtime session the Rangers would have to play slightly more cautious than the Caps. Advantage visitors. You also got the sense that for all the Capitals’ shortcomings on Sunday, they were there at the end poised to achieve something they never had before. But it wasn’t to be. Because it wasn’t earned.
This was a game for the taking by the guests, and a novel stranglehold on the series rendered. Instead, because the Capitals could not match New York in intensity and execution — or work ethic — the series has new life. A team with plausible aspirations for playing meaningful hockey in warm weather desperately needs a moderately short opening series. The Caps could still get it this week, but they made such a task a heck of a lot harder on themselves. Simply because they got outworked.
After game 2 I’d posited the notion that the Caps would need to help the Rangers get back in this series. Sunday they did. The game’s first goal never should have been scored. Eric Christensen’s power play tally from the severest of corner angles was a physical and mental error by Michal Neuvirth — that short-side corner gap simply can’t be left unguarded. Error of youth.
In Friday night’s decisive second period the Capitals authored what John Tortorella called a “surge” against his club. Sunday in Madison Square Garden a surge of Capitals went to the penalty box. “You can’t take seven penalties,” Bruce Boudreau said afterward. “You knew [the Rangers] were gonna be antagonists.”
That the Capitals escaped the second frame knotted at 1-1 was illusory; the Rangers on Sunday brought intensity to their game plan, and the Caps didn’t match it. Killing off such a high volume of penalties saps energy and disrupts rhythm. Opposed by the host’s high intensity, unable to match the host’s discipline, the Capitals succumbed in Sunday’s final 90 seconds, when a puck deflected off of Karl Alzner’s arm and went behind Michal Neuvirth for a 3-2 Rangers’ win. New series.
The Rangers played a disciplined, gritty game, while the Caps were whistled for eight minor penalties, leading to seven Rangers’ power plays. When you have to kill that much penalty time often your elite skaters lose out on minutes. The Caps certainly want Jason Arnott on the ice for more than 14:31, and Alex Semin skating more than 16:06. More basically, line disruption of this sort robs a skilled team of its rhythm. It was a disjointed offensive effort by the Capitals Sunday afternoon, thanks to the parade to the sin bin they undertook, and it played right into the Rangers’ gameplan. And in failing to match the Rangers’ intensity the Caps placed Michal Neuvirth in a hornet’s nest of Rangers running the goaltender’s crease. Time after time there were Blueshirts in Neuvirth’s blue paint.
“Every time there was a scrum in front of the net they hit Neuvy,” Boudreau said. “[The referees] kept warning them not to do it and they kept doing it and nothing was done so they kept doing it.”
Maybe some psychological gamesmanship by the coach in advance of Wednesday’s game 4.
There’s an extra day off before game 4. That might stifle a bit the momentum the Rangers left the the Garden with Sunday. Still, the tale of the statistical tape, in almost every category, belonged to the Rangers on Sunday, the result of blue collar, bully ethos by the Blueshirts. Look for the Caps to have a better regard for their young netminder on Wednesday, and for life at the other end of the ice to become more congested and antagonistic.