The New York Rangers beat long odds by surmounting a 3-1 series deficit last spring. After holding off the Washington Capitals, 4–3, in a thrilling Game 6 on Sunday night, they’re now one win away from doing it again.
The Rangers got two first-period goals from Chris Kreider—one coming 40 seconds into the game, the other with just 3/10ths of a second left on the clock—and a huge slump-buster by Rick Nash, then held off a furious third-period rally to secure the win and push the series to a pivotal Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Here are three quick thoughts on the game:
1. Rangers’ big stars are shining bright.
Got to hand it to Kreider. Before the game, the young power forward spoke of the importance of getting out to a quick start. He gave New York exactly what it needed with a brilliant individual effort, outracing Matt Niskanen from inside New York’s zone and then muscling past him just outside the crease to flip a one-handed backhander over the shoulder of Braden Holtby. That was Kreider at his beast mode best, all power and determination. His second goal, though, was all hockey sense. With Troy Brouwer in the box after taking a foolish roughing penalty with four seconds remaining in the frame, Kreider found open space to the right of Holtby and buried a rebound into a gaping cage.
While the Rangers love to see Kreider going to the net like that—they've now won 11 straight games in which he’s scored—they have to be a little apprehensive about his tendency to cross the line physically. He dodged a bullet (and Andre Burakovsky dodged a serious injury) when he stuck his leg out and went knee-on-knee with the speedy Capitals winger. It’s one thing to play on the edge, but that’s the sort of brain cramp that could earn him a call from the Department of Player Safety. He’s too valuable to the team to be taking reckless chances like that.
Nash has been an impact player in so many ways during the course of this series, but he’s been hearing it for his inability to light the lamp again this spring. His goal 54 seconds into the third period was huge for this team, allowing the Rangers to regain their two-goal margin and helping them extend this series to a seventh game. But it may have been even bigger for him personally. It was a spectacular display of patience as Nash corralled a loose puck in the low slot then slid to Holtby’s right before depositing it behind the helpless netminder. For a guy who was so desperate to break out of a slump to wait out the goalie like that was really remarkable, and maybe a sign that he’ll have more to say before this series is over.
Henrik Lundqvist made 42 saves in perhaps his best performance of this postseason. Although he allowed two third period goals as the Caps closed to within one, it was his calming presence between the pipes that allowed the Rangers to slam the door on Washington]s comeback bid.
2. New York’s penalty kill was ruthless.
If the Caps end up losing this series—and who would have bet on that heading into the weekend—there’ll be plenty of fingers pointed at the team’s power play as the reason it couldn’t close the deal.
Washington ranked No. 1 during the regular season with the extra man, connecting at a sizzling 25.3%, but the magic has deserted its sticks in the playoffs. The Capitals generated just five shots while coming up empty on four chances on Sunday, dropping them to 12% for the postseason and jamming a crowbar in the spokes of their comeback attempt.
The unit had one final chance to redeem itself when James Sheppard was penalized for delay of game with 2:44 remaining in the contest. The call itself was undeniably wrong—replays showed his backhand clearing attempt hit the glass before sailing out of play, meaning it should have been a whistle and a face-off in New York’s zone. But after several minutes of total zone domination, this was like a message from the hockey gods. It was time to seal the comeback with a late goal and send the game into overtime.
Only it wasn’t, because New York’s penalty kill did another excellent job shutting down the shooting lanes, keeping the puck to the outside and burying the Caps along the walls. Those elements, along with the superb goaltending of Lundqvist, have kept Washington off the board with the extra man since Alex Ovechkin’s Game 1 laser blast.
Extend that streak through Game 7 and the Rangers chances of moving on look pretty good.
3. What now for Washington?
A loss is a loss at this time of year, but some are easier to swallow than others. The Caps can’t be happy with another slow start, their sixth of the series, but if any momentum carries over to Game 7, they may own it after their hot finish to the third period.
What their dominant stretch revealed was the blueprint for putting the Rangers away. It was more than just desperation. It was a commitment to hard hockey. The Caps got pucks deep, won battles along the boards and controlled play below New York’s goal line. Most important, they got pucks down low and forced Lundqvist to make stops under duress in tight. This was the kind of game in which veterans like Joel Ward (two goals, one assist) and Jason Chimera (one goal, one assist) can really thrive. Expect them, along with center Evgeny Kuznetsov (one goal, one assist) to lead the way in Game 7.
That line, cobbled together midway through the first period in Game 6, kept the Caps in this one. But the fact that Ward is leading the team with nine points and Kuznetsov is tops with five goals doesn’t bode well for their chances on Tuesday.
At this time of year, a team needs its best players to be its best players. That’s not happening for Washington, at least as far as its forwards are concerned. Not that Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been invisible. Ovechkin made 12 shot attempts on Sunday, landing six on net including a dazzling late-third period bid that Lundqvist barely got his shoulder on, and he continues to be a dominant physical presence with five hits. But his Game 1 boast of “all series, baby” is ringing hollow now that his drought is at four games and counting without a point. The same goes for Backstrom, who has just one assist in his past nine games. Like Nash, these guys are paid to score. Fair or not, that’s how they'll be judged after this series is over.
The Caps are a better team now than they’ve been at any point since those two players came aboard. They’re deeper, more skilled and better prepared for the rigors of the postseason. But big moments call for big players. Both stars came up small on Sunday. They can’t afford to do that again on Wednesday.