NEW YORK — The frenzy over sports is such that nearly every game can now be labeled “must-win” by someone — players, coaches, fans, media, the annoying guy in the next cubicle. But by even the most rigid standards, Monday night’s Game 3 of the NHL first-round playoff series vs. the Washington Capitals was a genuine must-win for the New York Rangers.
The Rangers have never come back to win a seven-game series after losing the first two games on the road. More specific to this series, the Rangers — after scoring early in Game 1 — had gone 111 minutes 16 seconds without a goal going into Game 3. They were 0 for 7 on the power play. And while Henrik Lundqvist had been his usual excellent self, Braden Holtby had been better, allowing just one goal — a deflection off a teammate’s skate — in two games.
But these are the Rangers, and this is Rangers vs. Caps in the postseason, so it’s hardly surprising that New York avoided a three-games-to-none deficit Monday night with a 4-3 victory at Madison Square Garden. Holtby gave up more goals than in the first two games combined, including Derek Stepan’s game-winner with 6 minutes 25 seconds remaining, and Lundqvist was King Henry again.
“We knew we had to win this one,” Lundqvist said. “It was a must-win. We really stepped up as a group and they kept coming. They’re a good team and you have to respect that, but we scored some big goals tonight.”
If you’re facing a goalie like Lundqvist, you need to take shots — lots of shots. In the first two games, the Caps took 68. Monday, the Caps started slower, taking fewer shots and not making the crisp, quick passes of Games 1 and 2. That in turn translated into fewer shots on goal. The Caps picked up the pace during the end of the second period and into the third, and they ended the game with a 31-30 advantage. But it was not their sharpest game.
“We should have been banging in pucks when we had the chance,” said Mike Green, who banged in one of his own to tie it at 2 in the second period.
This series is the fourth postseason meeting between these teams in five seasons, and the familiarity is starting to breed more than a little contempt. There was a lot of extracurricular pushing and shoving from the start. The Caps were whistled for three penalties in the first period and three in the second, the most painful and costly a tripping penalty against Holtby – painful because Holtby would be made to pay unless the Caps’ penalty kill bailed him out, costly because it couldn’t.
Instead, Derick Brassard gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead and the crowd began its “Holt-by, Holt-by” sing-song serenade. (That’s still kinder than “Ovi [tries to consume thick liquid through a thin straw].” And at least Holtby’s not a Jonas brother. One of them got booed – and he was rooting for the Rangers.)
Holtby didn’t try to deny responsibility for the trip, saying he was “not surprised” by the call. “I didn’t need to follow through [with the stick],” he said.
The Rangers only converted once with the man advantage, making them 1 for 13 in the series (although Brian Boyle’s first-period goal happened so close to the end of the man advantage that it was first ruled a power-play goal, and after the game some of the Caps referred to it as such). The stat is a testament to the Caps’ penalty kill, but it’s not an ideal use of manpower or ice time. Six penalty kills in two periods disrupts a team’s flow.
“Too much [time] in the box,” Green said. “The offensive guys are sitting on the bench and it takes some time to get back some momentum. Plus they got a goal off one of them. So otherwise it’s a tie game at the end.”
The best power-play team in hockey also failed to convert on three chances, including a six-on-four at the end of the game.
“Obviously we would like to score there,” Nick Backstrom said. “Anyone would like to score there. We’ve got to execute and get some shots through at least. We have to do a better job.”
Backstrom’s right; the Caps have to do a better job, and at every facet of the game, if they hope to avoid facing a must-win situation of their own.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.