But for the first half of Game 4 the opposite was true. The New York Rangers hemmed Washington in its own zone with an aggressive forecheck, disrupted breakout attempts and constantly forced turnovers to maintain possession.
The Capitals struggled to clear the puck and with the exception of two strong shifts by the third line had little in the way of an offensive presence early on during five-on-five play. Through the first 32:04 of the game the Rangers outshot them 21-9.
“They were working harder. They were coming harder,” Karl Alzner said when asked why it was tough to escape the defensive end in Game 4.
“They kept their two guys coming strong and the third guy was just quick to follow,” Alzner said. “So it made it a little bit tougher for us to get the puck and bump it over like we like to. They were a lot better with their dumps as well. They made some adjustments, so we’ll have to adjust now.”
Therein lies the challenge of any playoff series. When one team adapts to successfully counteract its foe, the other must respond with alterations of its own.
In addition to an elevated physicality on the forecheck, New York made decisions with its dump-ins that allowed it to somewhat neutralize Braden Holtby’s puck-handling ability, the Capitals said.
“It’s difficult because they’re putting pucks in real good areas. Holts is good at playing the puck but when you put it outside the trapezoid he can’t go get it,” Troy Brouwer said. “That means we have to hold up a little bit more, try and give our D-men that extra half-second, because they got some big forwards to finish their checks and it’s tough to go back and get pucks when you’re getting hit every time.”
In addition to making a consistent effort to backcheck and provide support for the defensemen so they are able to make a clean breakout, the Capitals’ forwards must track properly through the neutral zone as Brouwer mentioned. They don’t want to take unnecessary penalties by obstructing their opponents, but simply forcing the Rangers to take a more circuitous route to the offensive blue line with correct positioning and stick work can do the trick.
“Even if it’s a step one way or a step the other way, just make them go around you instead of going right through you,” Jason Chimera said. “Seconds are huge in this game. I think if you make them go an extra second around you it’s going to make the world of difference.”