BY CHAYIM TAUBER
It’s been a Rangers motto all season and it’s never been more applicable than it is now in their first round playoff matchup against the Washington Capitals.
“Survive” becomes a motto when you’re gameplan is to rely on your goaltender to hold the opposition scoreless (or pretty near to it) while hardly scoring yourself. Survival becomes an even more pressing matter when you concede the first two games of a playoff series. The Rangers have come home with a simple but desperate objective: clean up at the Garden.
Games 1&2 were displays of offensive impotence. Save for a Carl Hagelin bank shot off of a skate, the Rangers did nothing to put the puck in the Capitals net. Sure the shots on goal totals were up but everything the Rangers put on net was from the perimeter with no traffic in front of the net for a deflection, rebound, or screen. The shots were there but the true scoring chances weren’t. The hope seemed to be that Lundqvist would be able to win this series for them.
It took a herculean effort from Lundqvist, a 37 save masterpiece, to send Game 2 into overtime, an effort squandered when Mike Green slapped in a power play goal at the 8:00 mark of the extra session. That goal was indicative of the series to that point as the Rangers have been losing miserably in the special teams categories; one of the keys to the series.
The Capitals are one of the top teams in the NHL on the powerplay and statistically one of the worst in the NHL on the penalty kill. The Rangers have one of the most anemic power plays in the league. Something had to give and early in the series, it’s been the Rangers.
“(The power play)’s been stagnant,” a visibly irritated Coach Tortorella said. “It’s like we’re paralyzed.”
But it’s not just their inefficiency on the power play that’s been the issue, it’s the other aspects of special teams as well. The Rangers have spent a good amount of time in the penalty box, forcing an already short-handed team (due to injuries) to negate one of the better power plays in the league. It also exhausts their forwards who had accomplished nothing in the first two games and forces Lundqvist to be perfect night in and night out.
Then came game 3 – by no means a flawless game from the Rangers but the first game they played in which they looked desperate.
The Rangers still took penalties, they still turned the puck over in the neutral zone, still lost more and they still lost more faceoffs than they won. Yet, the feeling after the game was that of relief as the Rangers held on to win a back-and-forth battle with Washington to make it a 2-1 series heading into game 4.
“It’s just…trying to get momentum on your side and trying to win a hockey game,” said Tortorella.
Momentum is certainly starting to swing the other way for a Rangers team that got contributions from unexpected places in game 3. Brian Boyle earned the second star of the game for his goal and assist (2 goals all season), Aaron Asham netted one (also 2 goals) and defenseman Marc Staal returned to the ice after being out months with an eye injury.
Unfortunately, the boost that Staal’s return provided was short-lived as game 4 saw him scratched from the lineup. That didn’t stop the Rangers from taking care of business on home ice. Fellow blueliner Ryan McDonagh did a brilliant job of neutralizing Ovechkin and Dan Girardi, the alternate captain in Staal’s absence, hammered in a power play goal to break a 2-2 tie early in the third. With the win, the Rangers send the series back to Washington knotted at 2.
“These are two big wins here,” said Captain Ryan Callahan. “We have to keep the momentum going and keep the confidence rolling… we feel good now.”
“Momentum’s game to game,” added a resurgent Brian Boyle. “We can have momentum all we want today and tomorrow, that doesn’t mean anything once the puck drops in Washington.”
Momentum or not, the Rangers have put the pressure back on Washington to not drop a game at home. If the Rangers, winners of two straight now, can steal a win in Washington, the Rangers are well on their way to the next round of the playoffs. IF they can keep the momentum on their side.