WASHINGTON, D.C.—Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he needed more from his “best guys” if New York was going to salvage a split at home on Saturday afternoon against the Capitals. The day before, the coach had called out his team in a post-practice press conference for not playing well enough against the Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Joel Ward in Game 1, when the trio accounted for both Washington goals, including Ward’s winner with 1.3 seconds remaining in regulation.
In Saturday’s 3–2 victory over Washington, the Rangers managed to limit the trio to just one goal, an insane effort by Ovechkin, who split defenders Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi and shot the puck as he was falling to the ice. Vigneault acknowledged his team’s success against Washington’s Hart Trophy candidate, saying he thought his guys “played better.” He also said that though Ovechkin had some “real good looks,” he thought the Rangers did a better job of taking away his time and space than they had in Game 1, when the sniper scored in the first period and assisted on the game-winner.
“We learned we can’t fall asleep on No. 8,” Rangers forward Derick Brassard said. “Pretty nice goal there, he’s a pretty dynamic player. We have to play him close every time.”
The Rangers also know that they can't fall asleep on Backstrom and Ward, either. Backstrom, a career point-per-game player and Washington’s franchise assist leader, has seven points in nine games this postseason. Ward has produced six points.
“The top line, as everyone saw tonight, is tough to handle,” Vigneault said, but the Rangers did a pretty good job, holding Backstrom and Ward to just two shots each on Saturday.
Now as the series shifts to Washington for Games 3 and 4, Brassard noted that the task will get more difficult with the Capitals having the benefit of the last change.
“It takes five guys,” Brassard said. “We’re not going to have possibly the matchups we like, so it’s going to be the responsibility of everybody to do a job. They’re obviously a productive line.”
The Rangers can point to several reasons for being optimistic that they'll get the job done. For one, they were the league's best road team this season at 28-11-2 away from Madison Square Garden. And the McDonagh-Girardi pairing has had success limiting Ovechkin in recent seasons. In the last 18 games between the Rangers and Capitals, Ovechkin has scored eight goals, but only two at even strength. Staying out of the penalty box and keeping Washington’s league leading power play (25 percent) off the ice will be crucial.
New York also got a boost on Saturday with contributions from the Brassard-Rick Nash-Martin St. Louis line. On the Rangers’ second goal, Nash screened Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, allowing defenseman Dan Boyle to score on a shot from the blue line in the first period. The eventual game-winner, by Brassard early in the third less than 10 seconds after he came out of the box, where he spent two minutes after interfering with Ovechkin.
“I was really nervous in the penalty box, to be honest,” Brassard said. “The guys did a great job killing the penalty for me. I was just trying to slow down Ovechkin there, and got caught. When I came back on the ice, I had some energy.
“I think that goal was big for our line, it’s going to bring us some confidence, hopefully.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz noted the Rangers’ desperate play in Game 2, and it must continue if New York is to wrest back the home ice advantage it surrendered in Game 1. Getting off to a fast start like they did on Saturday will surely help—the Rangers have outscored their opponents 7-2 in the first period so far this postseason—and though completely stopping Ovechkin may be unlikely, simply limiting him will be New York’s main job.