NEW YORK — Hours before the puck dropped at Madison Square Garden for Game 3 on Monday night, something didn’t sit right with Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. He was concerned that his team, with a two-games-to-none lead in its Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers, might be getting a little too “loose.”
“It’s still playoff time and you never want to get comfortable,” he said after the morning skate. Perhaps Holtby’s concern was warranted.
Multiple times throughout the loss the Capitals didn’t appear as composed as the team that won the first two games of the series.
The visitors took six penalties in the game’s first 27 minutes, ruining any chance at establishing a rhythm while giving the Rangers far too many power-play opportunities. New York exploited holes in the defensive zone for chances directly in front of the net — all four of their goals came from within 15 feet. And when the Capitals’ lauded power play went to work with the goalie pulled for a six-on-four advantage with 1 minute 54 seconds remaining, it didn’t muster a single shot on goal.
“That game was far from our best. We weren’t as tight as we should be, that happens,” Holtby said after finishing with 26 saves. “We have the team and the character to learn from that and make sure we change that.”
Nicklas Backstrom’s first goal of the postseason, on a deflection of a booming shot by John Carlson, gave Washington a 1-0 lead with 4 minutes 6 seconds gone in the first period but it was already clear that the Rangers carried a greater sense of urgency.
New York, for the first time in this series, displayed a shoot-first mentality and its trademark snarl was suddenly back in each of its hits on the forecheck. After Joel Ward high-sticked Derick Brassard with 10:50 gone in the first the Rangers capitalized, though not technically on the power play.
Gigantic forward Brian Boyle, who is listed at 6 feet 7 and 244 pounds, powered his way toward the Capitals’ net unimpeded by Mike Green and put the puck over Holtby’s shoulder to tie the score at 1 at the same second Ward’s penalty expired. Boyle’s goal, his first of the playoffs, ended a Rangers scoring drought of 124:06 since Carl Hagelin’s goal in the first period of Game 1.
New York wouldn’t score again in the opening period but another Capitals penalty, this time for too many men on the ice with just less than six minutes to go, offered another chance for its power play to gain confidence. Meanwhile, Washington couldn’t build off its largely sturdy five-on-five play.
“Anytime you’re taking penalties, it’s losing momentum and it’s tough to get that flow of the game,” Green said. “Guys get tired and we can’t have that.”
When Holtby was whistled for tripping Nash just 1:15 into the second period — a minor the goaltender acknowledged was unnecessary and careless on his part — it took New York only eight seconds to cash in.
Brassard gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead with a perfectly placed shot that beat Holtby cleanly to his blocker side and suddenly the once quiet crowd clad in blue roared in approval and waved its white towels.
“It’s tough. The PK was great, but it wears your guys down,” Steve Oleksy said. “You get some of your top players out there on the PK as well and when you’re killing that many penalties it’s tough. It’s tough to battle back the rest of the game.”
The Rangers continued to push over the next six minutes. Brad Richards rang a shot off the post. Both Jay Beagle (hooking) and Oleksy (elbowing) took penalties, giving New York plenty of opportunity to push ahead. While the Rangers were unable to increase their lead during those power-play opportunities, it was clear they had pushed Washington away from its game plan.
“We did get flustered a little bit on a couple shifts where we just got running around a little bit and we weren’t sticking to our system and almost a run-and-gun, back and forth,” said Beagle, who called his penalty “lazy.” “We don’t want to play that kind of style against these guys.”
Green scored for a second consecutive game to tie the contest at 2 with 17:19 expired in the second. Nearly three minutes into the third, Arron Asham put New York ahead 3-2 with a shot from in front after a nifty feed from Brassard behind the net. Beagle tipped a long-range shot by defenseman Jack Hillen to pull the contest even at 3 with just less than 13 minutes to play.
Stepan shifted the balance one final time when he redirected a bad-angle shot by Nash past Holtby for a 4-3 edge. Not even a lengthy opportunity for Washington’s potent power play, which was 2 for 7 in the first two games of the series, held the prowess it did on previous nights.
The Capitals passed up opportunities where they could have put the puck on net, looking for the perfect shot rather than any one, and none of their three attempts — a miss by Troy Brouwer and two tries by Backstrom that were blocked — managed to reach the net.
“We’ll regroup here tonight. It’s obviously disappointing, but that’s why it’s seven games. It’s unfortunate,” Green said. “We obviously wanted to be up three but we’ve got a lot of work to do, and we know that. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”