The Washington Capitals knew the New York Rangers brought different strengths to this Eastern Conference semifinal series than their first-round foes, the Boston Bruins, did. One of the most significant is the Rangers’ over the top aggressive forecheck.
Through the first two games, the Capitals’ defensemen have become quickly reacquainted with New York’s punishing style and the physical repercussions of failing to make quick, smart decisions with the puck.
The most notable example, so far, came midway through the first period of Game 2, when the Rangers pummeled Washington — they were credited with six hits in 1 minute 56 seconds — to sustain a tenacious cycle. Mike Green absorbed the worst of it, taking several cringe-worthy checks on the sequence from Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan among others.
“That one shift where I think I got hit five times, that takes a toll on you and obviously it expends a lot of energy,” said Green, who added that the Capitals blueliners must adapt. “I figured it out after that; I didn’t want to get hit no more. I think after that I started to move the puck a little quicker and was able to dodge the checks.”
Unlike the Bruins, who would try to take away the neutral zone if Washington had clear possession of the puck in their own end, New York attacks like a pack of rabid dogs. The Rangers will consistently bring two forecheckers down on Washington’s defensemen, while their blueliners will pinch and cut off the options to send a pass to the wingers.
While hits are a subjective stat, the Rangers were credited with 35 hits in Game 1 and 45 in Game 2, but just 19 of those total 80 hits came from their defensemen. Comparatively, Washington was credited with 28 and 35 hits in Games 1 and 2.
“They come and finish the check whether you’ve just moved the puck or not,” Roman Hamrlik said. “We’ve got to support each other, get the puck as quickly as we can and lift the puck to the forwards.”
New York’s forecheck puts such significant pressure on whoever gets to the puck first to make a smart, initial pass, but it also can leave a little extra time for the ensuing parts of the play that the Capitals defensemen want to take advantage of. The challenge is ensuring the first decision is the correct one when they only have a split-second to make it.
“There’s not going to be time when we can make tape-to-tape passes every time,” Green said. “We’re going to have to go off the glass or chip to each other. There has to be support when they’re coming so hard.”
The Rangers’ forecheck also contributes to long-term wear and tear on the defensemen taking the hits over the course of the series and the playoffs.
To lessen those blows and give the Capitals’ blueliners more time to move the puck, they’ll need help from the forwards to clog up the neutral zone and slow the New York onslaught.
“I think that if we can get them slowed up through the neutral zone a little bit, and not let them come through the neutral zone with so much speed, that will give us a little bit more time,” Dennis Wideman said. “Then we’ve just got to go back a little bit harder. When they’re coming hard on like that, you’ve got to move the puck quick. They’re coming. That’s the way it is in the playoffs.