Joel Ward’s bang-bang goal with 1.3 seconds remaining in Game 1 of the Capitals’ second-round series against the Rangers will be remembered as one of the most clutch moments in Washington’s history. The Caps stole home ice, momentum, and a little piece of New York’s soul with that buzzer beater, and were gifted with another bit in Game 3 when their winning goal went in off the skates of Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle and netminder Henrik Lundqvist.
But Alex Ovechkin and company may give it all back if they don’t take care of business at home in tonight’s pivotal Game 4 (7:30 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA).
It’s not exactly a must-win, but it’s an advantage the Caps don’t want to let slip away. Especially against a team that recorded the NHL’s best regular season record and is considered one of the top favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
The Caps come into this one perfectly poised to put their boots on the throats of the Rangers. Ovechkin has already scored two jaw-dropping goals in the series and established a physical presence in all three zones, earning comparisons to Mark Messier along the way. Washington is getting some production from up and down its roster—third-line center Jay Beagle was the offensive star in that 1–0 Game 3 victory. The penalty kill is tops in the league at 95.4%. They're sacrificing the body, blocking 27 shots in Monday's game alone. And their goaltender’s on a nice run.
Check that. An historic run.
Through his first nine playoff appearances this season, Braden Holtby has posted a .949 save percentage. That’s not just good. According to Hockey Reference.com, it’s the best mark ever recorded in that many games. His 1.54 goals-against average is right up there too, ranking fifth all-time.
The sample size might not impress the fancystats crowd—yet—but it’s a solid bit of work that has given his team a chance to win every night.
But Washington’s biggest advantage heading into Game 4 has been its ability to dictate the way the first three games have been played.
The Caps are a big, strong team. They’re built to muck up the middle of the ice, consistently win puck battles and punish the opposition every chance they get. You saw it on Ward’s dagger in Game 1. You saw it again on Beagle’s game-winner on Monday.
For all the skill that New York has on the back end, the Rangers struggle under heavy physical pressure. They hurry passes. They turn the puck over. That’s the weak link the Caps targeted and they’ve executed their plan magnificently in this series. They’ve clipped the Rangers in transition and negated New York’s clear speed advantage.
The Caps have frustrated Rangers stars like Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis, leaving them to face heavy criticism at home for their inability to finish. The truth is, it’s not all on them. Washington’s team defense has been relentless, throwing obstacles in their path and preventing New York’s shooters from getting the looks they’re used to.
They haven’t been perfect in this series. They haven’t yet been able to match New York’s intensity coming out of the blocks each night and if not for Holtby’s resolve they might be the team that is trying to climb out of a hole.
But he’s been there and Washington has recovered well enough to dominate this series for long stretches of play, leaving scraps for the Rangers.
Another night like that and they’ll have firm control of this series. If not, it may all come down to who gets the last break.
The numbers game
• Johnny Gaudreau’s Game 3-tying goal at 19:40 of the third period was the latest such tally in Flames playoff history. It bested Robert Reichel’s old mark of 19:13 set on May 9, 1995 against San Jose. The Flames lost that one, but on Tuesday night against Anaheim they potted the tying goal in the final minute of regulation and won in overtime for the first time in their postseason history.
• The Blackhawks are now 11-3 all-time against the Wild in postseason play and hold a 3-0 series lead for the first time since the 2010 Western Conference Finals vs. the Sharks, which they swept on the way to winning the Stanley Cup. Chicago’s 1–0 win on Tuesday night was its first by that score in the playoffs since May 8, 1992 when goalie Ed Belfour blanked Detroit. It was also the first on the road for the Hawks since April 13, 1974 when Tony Esposito shut out the Kings in Los Angeles.
• Corey Perry, with 28 goals, 42 assists and 70 points in 81 career playoff games, has passed Teemu Selanne (35-34-69 in 96) into second place on the franchise’s all-time postseason points list. The top spot is held by Ryan Getzlaf (27-59-86).
• For the first time since Rick Nash was traded to New York, the Blue Jackets will have a captain. Aaron Portzline breaks down the odds on the favorites to wear the C.
• Brent Burns posed for a Team Canada head shot. It is exactly as wonderful as you imagine it would be.
• Retirement? It’s not on the agenda for this hockey legend.
• Watching time-lapse footage of the ice being removed from Nassau Coliseum for the last time is exactly as painful as it sounds.
• Hungry for roster change after another playoff flop in St. Louis? Here’s why it won’t be easy.