NEW YORK — Less-than-crisp puck work, mental mistakes and goalie flubs are understandable. But not for more than one game, not in the playoffs. Yet even after time to rest and reflect on their Game 3 errors, the Washington Capitals came out Wednesday night in Game 4 against the New York Rangers and repeated many of the same miscues in a 4-3 loss.
The result is a two-all tie and a trip back to Washington, essentially to reboot the series as a best-of-three slugfest beginning Friday night at Verizon Center. Washington still has home-ice advantage, but the Rangers may be in a better position — right between the Caps’ collective ears.
“We knew if we took these two at home we were right back in the series,” said New York’s Ryan Callahan, “and that’s where we find ourselves.”
The Caps played down the punch in the gut that was these two losses before heading home to play Game 5 and to order flowers for their wives and moms. After all, they will have to spend Mother’s Day back here, with their (un)loved ones — the Blueshirts and their fans.
How did a 2-0 series lead become a 2-2 series? Eight reasons spring immediately to mind — the number of goals the Rangers scored here after managing just one at Verizon Center. And speaking of 8, the Rangers have found a way to confound Alex Ovechkin, the league’s hottest player in April. He failed to tally a point here.
“I think I really have to play better,” Ovechkin said. “When we have a chance to play in their zone, we have to use it. Tonight we didn’t do it.”
Ovechkin had a frustrating night from the first period, when he broke his stick on a slap shot, then later was called for a charging penalty. Ovechkin and Jason Chimera — taking the punishment for Martin Erat’s hook on the same play, which resulted in an “upper body injury” to Erat that will be evaluated Thursday.
Chimera’s second trip to the penalty box was more costly. He was called for interference at the end of the second period — right after the Caps had tied the score at 2. They had a 20-minute intermission and 59 seconds of the third period in which to enjoy that before the Rangers went up again on a power play goal by Dan Girardi.
Even the normally unflappable Braden Holtby has to be a little flapped, not just by the eight goals but by the mistakes the Rangers forced him to make.
In the first period, Holtby came out of the crease to his left to direct the puck to Eric Fehr well down the ice — a move at which he normally excels.
But his pass was intercepted by Taylor Pyatt. Holtby slid back in front of the goal mouth to try to correct his error; he kept sliding. Carl Hagelin’s shot went off John Carlson’s skate but neither Holtby nor Carlson could stop Brad Richards’s rebound goal.
In the third period, Holtby again overcommitted himself and when he tried to get back into position, he tangled legs with Joel Ward, allowing Derek Stepan to score. That gave the Rangers a 4-2 lead.
Holtby seemed his usual cool self after the game — if you can seem cool while dripping with sweat.
“It’s a three-game series now,” he said. “We still have home ice advantage. We learned last year that this team we are playing doesn’t give up and we don’t either.”
The Caps certainly didn’t. They twice trailed by two goals and both times clawed their way back into the game. But playing from behind takes its toll.
“The series has been very tight so when you are behind two goals, it’s not a good feeling and it’s tough to come back,” said Karl Alzner, who was temporarily credited with the Caps’ final goal of the game, even though the puck bounced off Mathieu Perreault’s helmet and past Henrik Lundqvist.
As a game plan, “bounce one in off someone’s helmet” is not a long-term strategy. It was just a lucky bounce, and May isn’t the time to trust to luck. The Caps will have to get back to the hockey they played in Games 1 and 2 — and make the Rangers play the hockey they played in Games 1 and 2. Or else their season will end for the second straight year at the hands of the Rangers.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit .washingtonpost.com/hamilton.