These are not your father’s Capitals. Or your mother’s Capitals, either, for that matter. These are not even your 6-month-old’s Capitals.
Three games into the official unveiling of their more defensive-minded style of play — if the regular season was beta testing, April 13 was the drop date for the real thing — we know that the new Caps are low-scoring and stingy, just as they were in the regular season. This was supposed to be the formula for success in the playoffs, and it worked to perfection in the first two games of the Capitals’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Rangers.
Sunday, the Blueshirts — with some help from the Caps themselves — found a way to beat Washington’s new look in a 3-2 victory in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden that cut the Caps’ lead to two games to one. The Rangers drew eight penalties, which wore down the Capitals’ normally reliable penalty kill, and they took little pokes at goalie Michal Neuvirth at the end of plays near the net. As the game went on, those pokes became more frequent as the Rangers looked for ways to get to the rookie after his .979 save percentage in Games 1 and 2. And it seemed to work, to the tune of three goals, including the game-winner by Brandon Dubinsky with 1 minute 39 seconds remaining.
“Every scrum in front of our net, they were hitting our goalie,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “They [the officials] kept warning them not to do it, did nothing about it, so they kept doing it.”
(No word on what Neuvirth thought; he was not available to talk after the game.)
“I think they did a nice job around the net,” Capitals winger Mike Knuble said. “They just seemed to be around the net a little more. I think that was the obvious game plan for them.”
This, of course, doesn’t signal a change in plans for the Caps. If you like high-flying, high-scoring hockey, these Capitals and this series are not for you. Expect scores like 2-1 and 3-2, and very few 2-0 blowouts. But if you like close battles with lots of defense, great goaltending and bruising hitting, this is the team — and the style — for you. BYOB — Bring Your Own Bicarbonate.
At this point in last year’s first-round series against the Canadiens, the Caps were up two games to one and their two victories were by scores of 6-5 and 5-1. That’s fun if you’re the guy who blows the horn, but means little to the players and fans when you go on to lose the series in seven games.
In those first three games against Montreal last year, the Caps took 120 shots, the Habs 89. That’s 209 shots on goal. In three games this season against the Rangers, the Caps have taken 76 shots on goal, the Rangers 82 (158). Of course, the Caps took only 18 in Game 2 because they had a 2-0 lead in the second period; Sunday, they took 10 fewer shots than the Rangers and that was almost entirely the fault of the penalties, which put them on the penalty kill for seven minors. That’s a lot of game time in which to lose your offensive attack.
Still, despite all their chances, the Rangers scored just one power-play goal, to the chagrin of their fans, who screamed “Shoot! Shoot!” during each one- and two-man advantage while their team passed and passed and passed the puck.
One goal was the difference Sunday, however, and it’s going to be the difference many times over if this series continues to be low scoring. Scarcity raises the value of pretty much everything; goals in this series are quickly becoming collector’s items, in part because of the stellar play of Neuvirth and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. A hot goalie can make the difference in the playoffs — witness Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak last April against the Capitals — and thus far the Caps have gotten a veteran performance from their rookie, who’s stopped 78 of 82 shots. But Lundqvist has stopped 70 of 76 shots, and he could replicate Halak’s performance given an opportunity.
Yet for much of the game, the Capitals barely fired so much as a dirty look at Lundqvist, especially during the penalty-ridden second period. This was contrary to their plan in the first two games, which called for a relentless attack on the goalie.
So while it’s not back to the drawing board for Game 4, it’s back to what got the Caps the top overall seed in the East and victories in the first two games of the quarterfinals. Stay out of the penalty box. Hit someone (the Rangers had 41 hits to the Caps’ 29). And shoot shoot shoot. It took the Caps a season to adjust to the new plan; they’re not going to throw it out the window after one loss.
“All three games have been battles,” Boudreau said. “It’s not a question of different strategies. I don’t think we’re going to change overnight.”