At this point in the playoffs, there’s no doubt about the Washington Capitals’ ability to play smothering defense and contain the opposition.
As they seek to even this second round series against the New York Rangers in Game 4, however, the question remains whether the offense can produce consistently enough to fuel an extended run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Capitals have scored just five goals in three games against New York, tying them with the St. Louis Blues for the lowest goal total in the conference semifinals. Of the six players on the Capitals’ top two lines, only Alex Ovechkin and Jason Chimera have scored against the Rangers.
The rest are riding scoring droughts of five to eight games.
“Where’s the offense?” Nicklas Backstrom asked rhetorically after Friday’s practice. The Capitals’ top center hasn’t scored since his overtime winner in Game 2 against Boston. “We have to make sure we stay aggressive, that we get pucks deep and keep working on it.”
Establishing an offensive rhythm is a multifaceted task for the Capitals. The first item on the checklist, though, is finding a way to ignite their top forwards.
Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson have not recorded a goal since at least the fifth game of the first round. In Game 3 on Wednesday, the top lines created chances, but many were off the rush, didn’t involve sustained pressure or were second- and third- rebound opportunities.
To find more success, the Capitals said they’ll start by aiming for lengthier trips to New York’s zone and turning back to the cycle that helped them in the first round.
Within that scheme, Backstrom said he wants to see his line with Ovechkin and Johansson “work with each other, pass the puck to create more,” rather than be satisfied with one shot on a possession. Ovechkin added that in trying to find more pressure down low, the Capitals can open other options.
“Their system is stay up tight — not in the corners, in the middle of the ice in their zone,” said Ovechkin, the Capitals’ captain. “Our D have more opportunity to think; if we’re going to cycle once, their forwards going down to [cover] where we cycle, our D is going to be wide open.”
Spending more time in the Rangers’ zone also is a way to wear down New York’s top blue-liners. The Capitals’ lack of scoring can be attributed to New York’s overall strategy.
Yet New York also relies heavily on a few defensemen — namely Ryan McDonagh, who played a stunning 53 minutes 21 seconds in Game 3, which lasted into the third overtime, plus Marc Staal (49:30) and Dan Girardi (44:22).
Tiring out the defensemen is one step, beating Vezina and Hart trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist is another. Although the Capitals have fired 89 shots through the first three games, far too many have come from long range and without chaos in front of Lundqvist, who boasts a .943 save percentage and 1.28 goals against average in the series.
Washington knows it needs to make seeing the puck more difficult for “King Henrik,” who hasn’t given up more than three goals in a playoff game this year.
“You’re not going to beat Lundqvist too many times if you just shoot the puck mano-a-mano,” Chimera said. “You’ve got to get to the net. . . . Redirecting pucks, they’re not pretty goals but you’ve got to get to those areas where you’re going to find the second and third chances.”
To find a few extra goals, the Capitals could also jump-start the power play, which is a dreadful 1 for 10 against New York and 4 for 29 in the postseason. At times against the Rangers, Washington’s puck movement has been superb, and the unit has 16 shots on the man advantage.
Despite Washington’s overall lack of offense in the first three games this series, the players were uniformly optimistic that they can start filling the net again. Part of it is knowing that the solutions are in their control, they said, and part of it is learning to adapt to the Rangers’ game.
“There are some areas where we would like to think that we can expose them a little bit,” said Brooks Laich, who didn’t want to divulge any game-plan secrets. “They’re very aggressive in some areas where if we play well defensively we should be able to transition that into offense. That’s about as deep as I want to get into it. There are some areas where, having played them three times, we’re picking up a few tendencies where we might be able to create more offense.”
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