By Allan Muir
Five quick thoughts on the players and situations that could have an impact on tonight’s Rangers vs. Capitals matchup in Washington (8 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network), one of two decisive games on tap tonight:
1. Ovechkin's struggles: If Alex Ovechkin was looking for a way to make people forget his lousy start to the season, he's found it: a lousier finish. The spectacular second half, the record-setting April, the Rocket Richard Trophy, the MVP nomination ... none of that will mean anything if Ovechkin fails to steer the Capitals clear of another early playoff exit. It's not a question of effort -- he leads the series with 29 shots on goal and offered up a strong 200-foot game in Sunday's 1-0 loss in New York -- but there are no medals for trying hard at this time of year. Ovie gets paid to score goals, and he's gone five games now without lighting the lamp. Excuses? Sure. He's been blanketed by Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, and Henrik Lundqvist has been in beast mode. But this is a lousy time to be needing excuses. If he can't stop the streak from going to six, Ovechkin is likely to carry this dry spell into next season.
2. Discipline, discipline, discipline: The Caps have given the Rangers 26 power play opportunities in this series -- more than any other team -- and while it hasn't cost them dearly (just two goals), there's no upside to gambling. And it's not just the threat of offensive retribution that makes Washington's lack of control an issue. It's that it disrupts the flow of the Caps' own offense, as was obvious on Sunday when they took five minors to none for the Rangers. This has to be a turn-the-other-cheek game for Washington.
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3. Nash needed: Rick Nash, New York's leading goal scorer during the season, with 21, has yet to notch his first in the series. When Brad Richards wasn't stapled to the bench in Game 6, he was skating on the fourth line. Not exactly the returns the Rangers expected when they brought the stars on board to retool an ineffective offense. Nash is getting his tires pumped for his effort, but he has to be more than a big body in Braden Holtby's crease tonight. As for Richards, it'll be interesting to see how John Tortorella employs him. Will he be offered important ice time to give him the chance to contribute, or will he be saddled with junk minutes again? In a game this important, it's all hands on deck. Bet on the former.
4. Lundqvist's burden: With the Rangers not scoring -- their offense has dipped from 2.71 goals-per-game in the regular season to 2.15 in this series -- the onus is on Lundqvist ... again. Essentially, the pressure is on him to hold the Caps to two goals. When he managed that during last spring's run to the Eastern Conference Final, New York's record was 10-3. When the opposition scored three, the Rangers went 0-7. Pretty clear what has to happen tonight. 5. Under-the-radar difference-makers: Looking for a hero? Derick Brassard is a good bet for the Blueshirts. He's been a revelation, scoring two goals and seven points through the first six games, and creating more chances with his playmaking skills than any other Ranger. He scored the winner in Game 6, but look for him to make some magic with his ability to distribute the puck tonight. For the Caps, turn to Troy Brouwer. Washington always seems to get something out of its pluggers at key moments (see Joel Ward, the author of last year's series clincher against the Bruins), and while his 19 goals suggest he's something more than a banger, Brouwer's blue-collar work ethic perfectly fits the bill. He's someone who can be relied upon to go to the net and use his big body to wreak some havoc in front of Lundqvist. At a time of year when will routinely trumps skill, Brouwer is built to be a difference-maker.