Caps coach Adam Oates believes his team is coming off its best nine consecutive periods of hockey this season. Playing the final game of a season-long four-game road trip against the Rangers in New York on Sunday, the Caps will look to snowball those nine periods into a dozen.
The last six of those nine periods led to two wins over the Jets in Winnipeg, two wins that have lifted the Capitals back into the chase for the Southeast Division lead and a possible playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
“Obviously the two games [in Winnipeg] were very solid games,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “We showed video today on it. [Brooks Laich] back in the lineup sure helped. It was the best we looked where we had pace throughout the game. We put the puck in the right spots, we looked like a team that was fast at times and we didn’t have too many hiccups in the game. The two games were very solid in Winnipeg. Obviously you don’t expect it to be like that, but everything was kind of going our way, [goaltender Braden Holtby] was solid, it was great.”
Three points separate Washington from New York in the Eastern Conference standings, so a regulation win would pull the Caps within a point of the Blueshirts. The Caps – and in particular Washington’s forwards – have had difficulty scoring against the Rangers recently.
Going back to Game 7 of last spring’s Eastern Conference semifinal series between the two teams, the Caps have tallied exactly one goal in each of their last three meetings with the Rangers. All three of those goals came from defensemen.
The last Caps forward to find the back of the net against the Rangers was Jason Chimera, who supplied the game-winning strike in Washington’s 2-1 win over New York at Verizon Center in Game 6 of the aforementioned playoff series between the two clubs last May 11.
During its current trip, Washington has scored the game’s first goal in each of its first three stops on the journey. That did not lead to success in Pittsburgh (2-1 loss on Tuesday), but it resulted in a pair of convincing wins over the Jets in Winnipeg on Thursday and Friday.
For the second time this season, the Caps bring a modest two-game road winning streak into Madison Square Garden. John Carlson staked the Caps to a 1-0 lead just 1:19 into the first period on the team’s first visit here on Feb. 17, but Washington was unable to build on that lead and it suffered a 2-1 loss on a Derek Stepan power-play goal in the third period of that game.
Two weeks ago at Verizon Center, Steve Oleksy’s first NHL goal came at 2:16 of the first period and it gave the Caps an early 1-0 lead. But again the Caps were unable to stretch the advantage, and they dropped a 4-1 decision to the Rangers.
“We talk about our starts, we have actually on this trip,” says Oates. “The first goal is always important. But if not, we’ve just got to come out with the right intensity, the right decisions and the right plays. If we get behind, it doesn’t matter. We’ve just got to come out and show them that we’re ready from the opening face-off.”
As they take the ice against the Rangers tonight at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals are without a goal from a forward in the last 209 minutes and 1 second of hockey they’ve played against New York.
“They play a stingy kind of defense,” notes Chimera. “They don’t really allow 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s and stuff like that. You’ve got to get your goals the hard way by going to the front of the net. Quite often, you’re not going to beat [Rangers goaltender Henrik] Lundqvist on the first shots anyway. You’ve got to get those rebounds, get those quick shots from side to side. You’ve got to move him around a bit to score goals. When he’s facing 1-on-1s, he’s very tough to beat. You’ve got to get those goals from in front of the net, the goals he doesn’t see. It’s going to be important tonight.”
Washington’s 10-8 mark when scoring the game’s first goal this season is quite unspectacular; it ranks 25th in the NHL. But the Caps would still prefer to get the early lead here tonight.
“We were able to do that in Winnipeg and it’s the same thing here,” says Caps center Mathieu Perreault. “It’s a loud building and if we can take the crowd out of it early by getting a couple good shifts, maybe getting a goal in there or getting the first goal, I think it’s going to be a key for us.”
Coming into New York with 10 goals in their last two games, the Caps know they can’t expect that offensive bonanza to continue. They believe they’ll have to squeak out a close one here tonight in Manhattan.
“They play in front of their goalie and he’s a great goalie,” says Oates. “They block shots and they make you work for it and they try to capitalize on your mistakes. We have to be patient. He is a top five [goalie] in the league. Last year he was on an incredible roll and you just have to be patient. Don’t give them that freebie that they’re looking for. Just pound the puck, get tips, get screens. They’re here to win 1-0, 2-1. You’ve got to have the same attitude.”
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