“At the end of the day you’ve got to put it home. We didn’t.” — Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh after 1-0 loss to Capitals on Monday.
For the Rangers, the search is on – that is finding a way to win.
With a most critical Game 4 of the Metropolitan Conference Final staring them in the face tonight, Alain Vigneault‘s battalion is in a peculiar position for a team that finished third overall in scoring during the regular season.
Illuminating red lights — once an easy habit for the New Yorkers — has suddenly become something roughly equivalent to walking up the side of the Empire State Building.
It was quite evident even in Round One against a weaker Pittsburgh team riddled with injuries and the vice is versa now thanks to Washington’s remarkably imperturbable goaltender Braden Holtby.
Confounding the Rangers’ high command is the indisputable fact that the team is playing hard with little tangible reward in the W column. Consider the assets that paid no dividends:
- HENRIK LUNDQVIST: The King continues to perform at a high level, betrayed only by a fluke off-Keith-Yandle’s-skate goal on Monday night.
- MARTIN ST.LOUIS: Thrust into the unenviable job of replacing Mats Zuccarello, the future Hall of Famer has recovered his A-game, but was foiled on a breakaway, among other interesting looks.
- RICK NASH: He’s ubiquitous, more vigorous and trying to be Mister Everything, working a defensive game as well as going the other way. Still, no goals.
- TREND OF PLAY: From the opening face-off in Game 3 the visitors took the Verizon Center crowd out of the play by dominating in the Washington zone. This was just the portent of things to come throughout. Yet they came away with zilch.
Why? There are several reasons:
1. The Capitals are not the Penguins. They may get out-skated and outshot, but they know how to counterattack and that’s precisely how they scored the lone goal on Monday night.
2. The Rangers are trying too hard for the perfect pass — looking for teammates on the far wings or down low for tip-ins. Ergo: more shooting, less thinking.
3. Yandle must hoist his game at least a notch or two; especially on the power play which could have been decisive in Game 3, but was deflated.
4. Alex Ovechkin, whether he scores or not, remains a constant threat and — on the Caps’ side — an inspiration to his team whether body checking or shooting.
5. The Capitals are relishing their underdog role while feeding off an exuberant home crowd.
That said, the Rangers’ rebound-ability still is at a high level although I suspect the confidence factor may be slipping.
“There’s always more I can do,” insisted Nash who’s finding playoff scoring a lot more challenging than in the regular season. The room that was there over 82 regular-season games appears to have constricted. (Blame the Caps for that.)
Rick knows. He’s aware that the spotlight will remain on him as long as the Rangers are alive in the playoffs. Expect a big game from him tonight.
Same for St. Louis, who has regained his confidence and feels strongly that the series will be tied before returning to New York and Friday night’s game.
Here’s The Maven’s prescription for curing the goal drought while producing a victory:
- POSSESSION AND SPEED: The Caps are not traffic cones; they can move, but — with precious few exceptions — cannot out skate the Rangers. New York must continue to accent the speed game and retain puck possession. Goals will come.
- URGENCY WITHOUT PANIC: A.V. coaches a resilient club with a calm that permeates the lineup. While the push that the Blueshirts have shown has been positive, it has not been enough. A bit more will create better bounces.
- LINEUP CHANGE: Matt Hunwick never disappoints when he’s put on defense. Dropping either Dan Boyle or Yandle for one game would not be fatal. Could be the answer.
On the Washington side, as you might suspect, confidence is growing. My D.C. correspondent Jeremy Strauss offers this bit of insight:
“From what I’ve seen, the Caps appear to want it more and the Rangers don’t look like the dominant team they were all season, Plus, the Caps feel they have something to prove.”
Especially Ovechkin. “When we play our game,” said the Caps’ captain, “we don’t push it. We know what we can do.”
Washington coach Barry Trotz predicted in advance that his first round series with the Islanders would go seven games, which it did.
When I asked Trotz whether this series would go the route, he demurred. Right now, it looks a heck of a lot like we just might see a Game 7.
But, for now, The Maven will concentrate on Game 4 tonight and Monsieur St. Louis’ observation:
“I’m confident that we’ll win it!”