Friday May 1st, 2015

Let’s talk about that hit for a moment, shall we?

Should a penalty have been called on Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom for slamming into New York’s Dan Boyle from behind moments before the Capitals scored the game-winner with 1.3 seconds left in regulation? I don’t think so. It was a heavy shot but not a cheap one, with the primary contact appearing to be shoulder to shoulder. Full marks then to Backstrom, who maintained his intensity ahead of the final whistle. That’s a level of commitment that was missing from his game in the past, and it’s an effort that highlights the laser focus of these Caps in this series.

The key to the play wasn’t the hit, though. It was that both Boyle and Ryan McDonagh went into the same corner in pursuit of the puck.

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2015 NHL playoffs: Rangers vs. Capitals second round preview

Boyle was the right side defenseman, but he ended up crossing over to his left in pursuit of his man, Alex Ovechkin, after the Caps entered the zone. McDonagh should have reacted off that and slid right to take away the potential for a pass to the front of the net. Instead, he followed and then backed away from Boyle only to be caught out of position when the puck was jarred loose, leaving Joel Ward all alone to finish his chance and beat the buzzer.

 Stanley Cup playoffs coverage hub

It was reminiscent of the mental breakdown that led to Braydon Coburn’s game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Lightning-Red Wings series. In that case, it was Detroit’s Danny DeKeyser who followed the play, and partner Kyle Quincey, behind the Red Wings’ net, leaving the front unattended and creating a clear lane for Coburn’s shot.

McDonagh then compounded his error by anticipating a penalty call. “I thought [the refs] were going to blow [the play dead],” he said after the game. “I hesitated for a second and he’s going around the net ...”

Chasing the puck and not playing to the whistle? You can understand a kid like DeKeyser making a mistake like that. But a veteran like McDonagh? It just can’t happen.

• Another game, another goose egg on the score sheet for Rick Nash.

With just one goal to show for his first six playoff games, and memories of last year’s postseason struggles still fresh in the minds of Rangers fans, the pressure falls on Nash to deliver the offense that was missing in Game 1 against the Capitals.

NHL
Revisiting our NHL playoffs crystal ball and looking ahead to Round 2

But here’s the thing to keep an eye on as he heads into Game 2 on Saturday (12:30 pm. ET; NBC, Sportsnet, TVA): Scoring isn’t the only way that Nash contributes to the success of the Rangers. Look at what he did on Thursday night. The Caps went to the box three times. Nash drew two of those penalties because Washington defenders deemed him a threat. And he offered his usual level of commitment in the defensive zone. Nash will never win the Selke Trophy but there’s no questioning his effort away from the puck.

Yes, he’s paid to score goals. No, that’s not been happening lately. But Nash is making a contribution. And as long as the chances are coming, as they were in Game 1, there’s no reason to worry about his play just yet.

The real point of concern should be Martin St. Louis. Despite landing four shots on net, the 39-year-old looked his age in Game 1, routinely a step slow both physically and mentally. He sucks the speed out of the attack when he’s on the ice, making him a poor fit for the top line during the absence of Mats Zuccarello (concussion). Look for someone different in that role for Game 2, possibly J.T. Miller. He might not have the finishing touch, but his speed will make the line much more difficult to defend than it was in the opener.

• The key difference between the Lightning team that was swept out of the first round last spring by the Canadiens and the one that’s looking for revenge this season? It’s not goaltender Ben Bishop, although his injury last year compromised any chance the Bolts had of winning and was the key talking point in the aftermath of the loss.

NHL
2015 NHL playoffs: Canadiens vs. Lightning second round preview

It’s Tampa’s defense.

The men playing behind Victor Hedman last year were either too old (Eric Brewer), too young (Andrej Sustr) or too slow (Keith Aulie, Mark Barberio, Radko Gudas, Mike Kostka, Sami Salo and Matthew Carle). GM Steve Yzerman recognized the flaw and completely retooled his blueline, adding Coburn, Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison and Nikita Nesterov. That’s a significant upgrade in both foot speed–key to breaking up Montreal’s attack and limiting the odd-man rushes that killed the Bolts last year—and transitional skill that is crucial to accelerating Tampa Bay’s attack through the neutral zone and maximizing the advantage of the Lightning’s quickness.

They’ll still need Bishop to stand taller than Anders Lindback did last season, but Tampa Bay’s fortunes in this series will turn on the effectiveness of that blueline.

The numbers game

NHL
Advanced stats predict second round of Stanley Cup playoffs

• Joel Ward’s dramatic buzzer-beater in Game 1 was only the third postseason game-winning goal ever scored in the final two seconds of regulation time. The others were tallied by forward Bob Pulford of the Maple Leafs on April 11, 1964 vs. the Red Wings (at 19:58) and forward Jussi Jokinen of the Hurricanes on April 21, 2009 vs. the Devils (19:59). Ward is the first player to do it on the road.

​• Since 2010-11 the Capitals and Rangers have played 20 postseason games against each other. That total shares the league lead lead with Kings-Sharks matchups.

• Chicago and Minnesota are facing each other in the playoffs for the third straight year and third time in their respective histories. Chicago won the first two series. After losing five straight games to the Blackhawks from May 11, 2014 to Jan. 11, 2015, the Wild have won their last two meetings.

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