While Alex Ovechkin averaged a goal per game over the final 23 games of the regular season, his linemates — Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson — weren’t simply passengers. From the time they were put together March 17 through the end of the regular season, the Capitals’ top trio scored 31 goals and added 48 assists.
Yet since scoring two of the three goals and adding one assist in Washington’s series-opening 3-1 victory over the Rangers on May 2, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Johansson have been neutralized, combining for just one goal and one assist in the following three games of the series, which is tied at 2-2 entering Game 5 on Friday night.
“Of course we want to score goals and help the team,” Johansson said Thursday. “There’s no doubt about that. I think we’re creating chances and we’re getting our chances to score, but we just can’t seem to put the puck in the net. Sometimes it’s like that, and I think if we keep playing the way we are — maybe a little better — we can score a lot of goals, I think.”
The reasons for their struggles are threefold.
First, in the past two games at Madison Square Garden, New York had the last line change, which allowed Rangers coach John Tortorella to match up his top defensive pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi as well as shut down forwards Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan against the Capitals’ top line.
Second, as McDonagh told reporters after Wednesday’s game, the Rangers have slowed the pace down when Ovechkin, Backstrom and Johansson are on the ice, forcing them to dump the puck into the zone instead of entering on the rush, when they are at their most dangerous.
Lastly, Ovechkin said Thursday that he, Backstrom and Johansson are being too “cute” and too tentative with the puck as they attempt to evade New York’s shot blockers. In games 3 and 4, they had more blocked shot attempts (15) than shots on goal (13).
“I think we’re waiting too long,” Ovechkin said. “If we have our chance to shoot the puck, we have to shoot it. Don’t wait one second.”
Since the start of the series, Capitals coach Adam Oates has continuously preached patience. He said that every line “can do things better” and “make better decisions,” but that he is confident his top line will get things together.
“That is the way [the Rangers] play,” Oates said. “It’s the way they’ve played for a few years and everybody knows it and you have to be patient. That’s it. There’s no solution. You’ve got to keep shooting. You’ve got to obviously try and find lanes and hit different spots. It’s going to happen.”