We're TightPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
Going into the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series between the Capitals and Rangers, a tightly played, low-scoring set of games seemed to be in the offing. Both teams ranked among the NHL’s top five in terms of regular season goals against and neither was particularly prolific at lighting red lamps. Also, a sweep by either team seemed unlikely. Of all the pre-playoff predictions from various sources for the Caps-Rangers series, I can’t recall seeing a single one that predicted a sweep for either side. Now that we’re three games in, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a total of 10 goals have been scored in the series. And that there won’t be a sweep either way. We have yet to see a first-period goal in this series; the Caps never went as many as three straight games without scoring or allowing a first-period goal all season long. After nearly 200 minutes of hockey, only the Capitals have led by as many as two goals, and somewhere around 120 minutes of that time has been played with the score tied. Sunday’s Game 3 was the definition of a seesaw affair; after the token scoreless first, the two teams alternated goals until time ran out. “In a series, that’s going to happen,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “One team is going to push, and then the other team is going to push back and then the other team is going to push. There are little swings of momentum like that. It was a very important game [Sunday] and they obviously realized it. I think their chances go way down if they go down 3-0. They pushed, they pushed hard. Now it’s our turn to push back.” Everyone expected the Rangers to come out hard, to have a strong push at the outset of Sunday’s game. Their very postseason existence was at stake. What about the Caps? Isn’t it time they authored a push in the game’s first 20 minutes, one similar to the one they brought in Wednesday’s Game 1? “But you have to be able to sustain it, too,” cautions Laich. “So far in the first period, there hasn’t been a goal scored in the series. It’s been pretty tight. It’s whoever can carry the momentum the longest in the game. “It’s one thing to push hard in the first period and come out with a great first period, but you can also expend a little bit too much energy in that and let the other team catch up. I thought we played a good game. [We took] a couple too many penalties and maybe a few defensive zone lapses that resulted in goals, but I don’t think we have to change a whole lot. I think we can just go five or ten percent better.” There was no palpable sense of panic whatsoever among the Caps after Monday’s optional skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. They lost a hockey game. It happens. “What went wrong is we took seven minors,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “All four teams that lost [over the weekend] not including the late games after ours, were teams that took an awful lot of penalties. When you take a lot of penalties, you’re not going to win. “As far as everything else goes, you’ve got a 2-1 win in overtime [in Game 1], a 2-0 hard-fought win [in Game 2] and a 3-2 loss [in Game 3] where they scored in the last two minutes. It’s two teams going at each other tooth and nail. In these situations, it’s not necessarily what you’re doing wrong that’s costs you. It’s a lucky break. I think both teams are working real hard. Whoever stays the most disciplined and does the right things is going to be successful.” For the Caps, doing the “right things” means just playing their game, being patient and believing. That’s what they were doing on Sunday when New York’s Brandon Dubinsky tore out of a scrum in the left corner with the puck, drove to the net and scored with just 99 seconds left in regulation on Sunday. Washington believes it was doing the right things in Sunday’s game; it just ran out of time. “In the game [Sunday],” says Laich, “it’s 0-0 or it’s 1-0, 1-1. We’re still on the bench comfortable in the hockey game. We’re not pressing. The common theme on the bench is just keep doing what we do and we’ll find a way to score one. Even when we get down 2-1, there wasn’t any panic. We get a power play and we score a goal. “Like I said before, we’re strangely comfortable in those tight games. It’s not like we’re going on the ice thinking, ‘Oh geez, we can’t get scored on.’ We’re going on the ice and saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to control the play and be solid in our own zone and keep working and we’re going to get a goal.’ “We don’t have to force anything offensively. I think that’s the biggest mistake we can make. Still stay strong defensively and then with the talent, ability and some more desire up front, we can score a few more goals.” Boudreau spent some time on Monday discussing a couple of his players, namely netminder Michal Neuvirth and defenseman Mike Green. Boudreau believes the Rangers are doing their best to rattle his rookie goalkeeper, but that the 23-year-old Czech is above the fray of Blueshirts that’s encroaching on his crease. “They’re doing all of that stuff and trying to get him off his game,” says Boudreau. “But the good thing about Michal is it doesn’t seem to affect him. But it’s there and we have to protect the goalies, both the team and the officials.” After allowing just one goal in the first two games of the series, Neuvirth was nicked for three in Sunday’s Game 3. But Boudreau hasn’t lost any confidence in him. “The [Erik] Christensen goal, there wasn't much he could do,” says Boudreau. “The third goal, it bounces off two of our guys and into the net. And they had 35 shots. I think he was pretty stellar, for the most part. I think he’s handling this tremendously. He’s calm as a cucumber.” That’s pretty calm. Never seen one of those getting excited over anything. Boudreau got a little excited talking about Green, who has picked up an assist in each of the three games in this series after having missed the previous six weeks of action after the Rangers’ (irony alert!) Derek Stepan delivered an elbow to the defenseman’s head in a Feb. 25 regular season game between the two teams. It’s Boudreau’s belief that New York is targeting Green with high hits in this series. Dubinsky checked Green into the glass late in Game 2, sending the defenseman to the bench. Seconds before Alex Ovechkin’s tying tally in the waning seconds of the second period on Sunday, Rangers defenseman Mark Staal hit Green up high. “It was to the side of the head,” declares Boudreau, “and it was a dirty shot. I hope the league looks at it. Staal comes in, there’s no puck, and he takes his arm and swings it at [Green’s] head. But it’s all forgotten because we score a goal to tie the game up. But it shouldn’t be forgotten, and it wasn’t the only time they targeted Mike’s head. They targeted it a few times. And that’s what we want to get out of the game. “They’re coming after him. [Brandon] Prust left his feet in the first period [of Sunday’s game] and went at the head as well. Mike threw a punch back at him when he was gone. I have no problem with hitting. Let’s hit as hard as we can. That’s what this game is all about. But you cannot target the head.” Actually, you "can." You’re just not supposed to. You might even get in trouble if you do.
There are usually momentum shifts within hockey games, and those shifts can be particularly pronounced in the Stanley Cup playoffs. There are those who believe that momentum carries over from one game to the next, and on occasion from one series to the next. In Sunday’s matinee match at Madison