A Game 7 seemed inevitable at the start of this series, even before each team won three games on its home ice, even before Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist put on a goaltending clinic, before the Blueshirts quelled Alex Ovechkin, before the Caps turned their penalty kill into a great strength, before the overtimes and the penalties and everything else that has made this a typical Caps-Rangers series.
The Rangers had won their past three elimination games at Madison Square Garden, where the puck certainly seems to bounce their way. So it did again in Sunday’s Game 6 — one of those 1-0 games some people say are boring. Some people are nuts.
Holtby and Lundqvist were merely superb, as they have been for much of this series. After six games, Holtby has a 1.77 goals against average, Lundqvist a 1.91. Holtby has a .938 save percentage, Lundqvist a .937. Lundqvist has had one advantage — he has faced fewer power plays than Holtby, thanks to the Caps’ continuing inability to control themselves.
The one puck that got past either goalie came on a shot by the Rangers’ leading scorer in the playoffs, Derick Brassard, from just inside the blue line. It sailed over Holtby’s shoulder — helped along its flight path when it bounced off Steve Oleksy.
“I saw it the whole way,” Holtby said. “It just happened to go off him and go in.”
“Usually it’s those ugly goals that win the games,” said Nick Backstrom.
Holtby excelled from the start, stopping 12 shots in the first period and facing three power plays, two that overlapped for 44 seconds of five-on-three fun for the Caps’ goalie. Karl Alzner had been sent off for a delay of game penalty and he was joined in the box by Eric Fehr (elbowing). But Holtby and the penalty kill unit kept the Rangers in check. The Caps’ penalty kill was less than average during the regular season but it’s been nearly perfect in the playoffs, killing 24 of 26 power-play chances. It helps that the Rangers’ power play is not very . . . powerful at the moment.
The Caps’ best kills came in the third period, after cross-checking calls on Joel Ward and Mike Green, respectively. There has been grumbling among Caps fans about the disparity between penalties called on the two teams, and those two in particular will fan the flames.
In fact, Game 6 in general will encourage the discussion: The Caps were whistled five times during the game. The Rangers? Zero. Squadoosh. Nada. The last time the Caps went without a power-play opportunity for an entire game was more than a year ago: March 13, 2012. (Each team got two roughing calls in a mini-melee after the game, but it was too late then to put the Caps on the power play.) In six games, the Caps have drawn 31 penalties, the Rangers 19. That’s lopsided, yes, but blaming the officials is always an easy out; even the Caps blame themselves far more than the guys in stripes. With the penalty kill, the number of infractions hasn’t been costly on the scoreboard. But it has resulted in major wear on that unit and keeps the offense off the ice, taking momentum from the Caps and handing it to the Rangers, time after time.
“Our PK is doing great,” said Holtby, who is a large part of that success. “it’s holding us in this series.”
The Madison Square Garden crowd serenaded Lundqvist with cries of “Hen-rik, Hen-rik” after the cool Swede turned away shot after shot — 27 in all. The only New Yorker to sing Holtby’s praises was Lundqvist, who said, “Holtby was playing really well and kept them in the game, especially in the second period. I felt like this was going to be the type of game where there were one or two goals tops. My focus was on trying to shut it down.”
Holtby returned the compliment: “We know it’s going to be hard to score goals on him.”
These teams met in a Game 7 last year in the Eastern Conference semifinals; that game was here, not at Verizon, but the stakes translate.
“They play really well at home, and they’re confident,” Lundqvist said. “The games we’ve played in that building, special teams have played a huge part. Tonight we played a really disciplined game and that’s going to be key for us, because they have a really good power play. Play hard, but play smart.”
Although it wasn’t intended for them, the Caps might want to heed that advice.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.