Caps Can't Relax Even for a Split Second

By Scott Lowe
We can sit an overanalyze the Washington Capitals-New York Rangers Eastern Conference quarterfinal series all we want, but at this point of the season with so much at stake there really aren’t many secrets – well, other than whether Mike Knuble will suit up tonight for Washington, that is. Neither team is going to alter its style or make a bunch of adjustments. When all is said and done, Game 4 will be won by the club that works the hardest and best executes the familiar postseason game plan of getting pucks to the net, generating traffic in front of the opposing netminder and staying disciplined.

Sounds boring, but unless you are from California, that’s playoff hockey. Grind it out, drive to the net and hope a few bounces go your way. In Game 3, the Rangers drove a little harder, and when you do that it causes your opponent to take penalties and often leads to favorable bounces such as the one that resulted in Brandon Dubinsky’s game-winning goal late in third period.

That is not to say that the Caps did not match the Rangers’ intensity level or play a generally solid game. They fought through adversity and came back on two occasions, including a power-play goal by Mike Knuble in the third period that tied the game at 2. The difference really came down to a few seconds of action in which a player either lost focus or got caught up in the emotion of the contest. And needless to say, desperate teams in must-win situations often find ways to reach deep inside to find something that propels them over the hump of pain and exhaustion and allows them to make a decisive play.

“This is almost like a game of chess,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said today after the team’s morning skate. “They’re playing really hard. Whichever team makes a mistake and the other team capitalizes on it is the way the games have been going. I don’t think either team has to do anything different. If we capitalize on the Rangers’ mistakes or they capitalize on ours, it seems like that’s the way the games will be decided. Hopefully we’re not the ones making the mistakes.”

The Game 3 result can be really chalked up to the following miscues:

1) Penalties – Like the calls or not, the Caps cannot afford to either get outworked or lose their cool to the tune of eight minor penalties and seven Ranger power plays. Overlooked is the fact that Carlson, who has been the team’s most consistent defensive player all year, was in the box after retaliating to the post-whistle shenanigans of Brian Boyle. While Carlson’s actions resulted in coincidental minors, it’s almost certain that he would have been on the ice when Dubinsky scored had he not been in the sin bin.

2) Split-second loss of focus – Michal Neuvirth, who has been steady-to-spectacular throughout the series, made a rare mental mistake by crouching down, possibly in anticipation of a pass out of the corner from Erik Christensen, and exposing a tiny sliver of the net on New York’s first goal. Christensen saw the opening and fired a bullet past Neuvirth, who never moved, for a 1-0 lead.

3) Failure to keep the legs moving – This happened to the Caps for the briefest of moments on the both the Rangers’ second and third goals. On the second tally Carlson relaxed for a split second second, assuming that Neuvirth would easily handle a shot from the point. That was just enough time for Vinny Prospal to get inside position and bang home a rebound after the high, hard shot handcuffed Neuvirth and caromed off of his blocker and in front of the net. On the decisive goal, Washington defenseman Scott Hannan either assumed that the Rangers’ scoring leader was going to circle behind the net or that teammate Alex Ovechkin was going to cut off his path to the goal, but either way he stopped skating just long enough to give Dubinsky an opening to get to the blue paint and bang a shot that appeared to bounce off of Neuvirth and Karl Alzner before floating into the goal.

Other than the penalties, none of these mistakes was a glaring miscue. If they had happened during a regular-season game in February, we might not have even noticed. In fact, it took a couple of fortunate bounces in favor of the Rangers for the mistakes to even result in goals, but the New York players never gave up. They kept their legs churning and in the end both guys were in position to capitalize on the mistakes and the fortunate bounces.

The lesson to be learned is that come playoff time – especially in a series that has featured a TOTAL of 10 goals in three games – you can’t take anything for granted. Goals are precious and scarce. If you relax for a second, without a doubt someone on the opposing team will be doing everything possible to put himself in a position to take advantage.

To date the Caps have put forth a team effort and played with a style that indicates they have learned what it takes to win in April. From this point on it’s just a matter of believing and executing. If they can match the Rangers effort and play with discipline they are the better team and will prevail. That’s what it comes down to, but the commitment has to be for a full 60 minutes, because as they found out on Sunday, even 59 minutes and 30 seconds may not be enough.

“We hope that (Game 4) is our best game of the series,” Boudreau said. “But I’m sure they’re over there thinking that they’ve played good but still haven’t played their best, too. I think coaches always want to have their best game of the series on the night of their next game. I just hope that in Game 4 we play better than we did in Game 3.”

Knuble Update
Knuble has not practiced with the team at all the past two days after appearing to hurt his hand when he was hit by a Mike Green shot that ultimately resulted in his third-period goal. Boudreau would not address the situation other than to say, “His equipment is above his locker. You’ll just have to wait and see if he plays tonight.”

In his absence, speedster Jason Chimera has been moved into Knuble’s wing spot on the Ovechkin/Nick Backstrom line during practice, while Eric Fehr, a healthy scratch the first two games, has been skating with Marcus Johansson and Brooks Laich.