For most of the season, offense wasn’t a problem for the first overall Blueshirts. They averaged over three goals-per-game finishing in the top five. In the playoffs, things have tightened up as they always do. With officiating going back to pre-lockout with refs swallowing their whistles, it’s allowed teams to get away with more tugging.
Indeed, the Rangers find themselves in a series against a tough opponent. In their two wins, the Capitals have taken away the stretch pass and clogged the neutral zone. They have also stood up at the blueline forcing the Rangers into mistakes. Washington coach Barry Trotz has done a masterful job adjusting his team’s style against Alain Vigneault who must adjust his team’s strategy for tomorrow’s critical Game 4. If that means more short passes and chips and chasing, so be it.
As has been a common theme throughout the playoffs, the Rangers played another one-goal game dropping Game 3 1-0 with Braden Holtby making 30 saves to blank them. All eight games have been decided by one goal. Unlike the first round when they had a distinct advantage on defense and up front, the Rangers don’t. The Caps boast an equally strong blueline and of course are led by the ever dangerous tandem of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The difference is their support players have been a factor. Troy Brouwer’s hustle allowed Jay Beagle to score last night’s winner.
Trotz has his team playing a similar style to the one former Rangers coach John Tortorella had the 2012 club playing. Anchored by gritty vet Brooks Orpik, Washington’s D has made life difficult on the speedy Blueshirts. In particular Orpik, Matt Niskanen and John Carlson have been Capital pains. They are playing physical getting in the passing and shooting lanes. In Monday’s win, the Caps blocked 27 shots. Another 12 Ranger attempts missed the net. That means 39 of 69 shots never reached Holtby. Rebounds have been hard to come by. Something a few notable Blueshirts took away from yesterday.
”We’re just going to have to keep throwing pucks at the net, and getting bodies there. Do our best to make sure he can’t see those shots and make sure we get some of those rebounds in front of the net,” Dan Girardi told reporters in the Rangers locker room following Game 3.
Henrik Lundqvist observed that the Caps have limited their second chances. The Rangers must do a better job getting inside position on Washington’s D. They’re not getting enough bodies in front of Holtby. He’s had it too easy. If there’s a area they can improve upon, it’s skating to the hard areas. Something a determined Caps have been more willing to do against Lundqvist. In both their victories, they outhustled the Rangers and made the most of their own breaks.
Through three games, the Rangers have totaled five goals on 97 shots. In their lone win, they were quicker to the puck and made it tougher on Holtby. On all three goals, there was a Blueshirt in front. Chris Kreider scored on a Jesper Fast rebound. Dan Boyle’s power play goal came due to Rick Nash screening Holtby. Derick Brassard’s game-winner was scored in front on a Martin St. Louis pass.
Without top right wing Mats Zuccarello, the offense is struggling. It can be argued that Zuccarello is their most consistent forward. He brings so much to the table. The Rangers must find a way to overcome his loss. That means better play from Nash, Brassard, St. Louis and Derek Stepan. Despite seven shots, Nash remains without a goal in the series. He has one in eight games. Brassard has been the team’s best source for offense but disappeared last night and took a bad penalty. St. Louis has two assists in the postseason. Hardly worth discussing. Stepan has one assist against the Caps.
The lack of production from the Rangers’ top forwards is killing them. I left out Kreider because he’s been noticeable. He finished in Game 2 and has been a physical force. He also only has one goal. Two points in eight games. Both goals. That doesn’t even take into account Kevin Hayes up and down play. However, he scored and set up Carl Hagelin’s series clincher versus the Pens and his shot banked in off Fast in Game 1. He still is learning in his first year.
Obviously, they’re not gonna get much out of the fourth line. For the most part, Dominic Moore, Tanner Glass and James Sheppard have been effective. However, with his team behind Vigneault shortened the bench in the third sitting Glass and Sheppard while giving Moore some shifts due to his faceoffs (8-and-5). As a team, the Blueshirts were miserable losing 42 of 60 including some key ones in the final minute with Lundqvist pulled for an extra attacker.
Aside from the forwards, Ryan McDonagh hasn’t done enough either. While he’s been splendid against Ovechkin with partner Girardi, he’s not making a difference offensively. The Rangers captain needs to put more shots on Holtby. Through four games, he has four shots and no points. That’s not good enough. He’s the one defenseman they can count on.
Keith Yandle hasn’t made an imprint. On for two goals against including deflecting Beagle’s backhand wrap in past Lundqvist, he hasn’t done enough to justify what Glen Sather gave up for him at the deadline. The power play remains frustrating along with Yandle’s insistence on passing the puck almost every time even when he has a clear look at Holtby.
Remarkably, Boyle was the one offensive threat from the back end in Game 3. He did a better job carrying the puck through the neutral zone and attempted three shots including one opportunity late that was deflected. Vigneault went with him the final minute and a half. He also battled harder in his end one on one. So, he’s not coming out of the lineup.
Since returning, Kevin Klein has been inconsistent. His defense one on one has been fine but he’s had a few shaky turnovers on forced passes. He did try to get more involved offensively in Game 3 but only registered a shot and missed the net three times. There’s no way Yandle and Boyle can play together. Vigneault must have Klein play with Yandle and keep Boyle with Marc Staal. Speaking of which, he also skated the puck up more and took two shots.
Offense from the blueline is important to the Rangers’ attack. Vigneault has them pinching. If they can’t get shots through from the point, it makes it easier on Holtby. Credit the Caps for taking away the shooting lanes. They have forced a lot of misses. Defensemen are hesitating more. There needs to be more decisiveness. Something that’s been missing. Puck possession is nice but if you can’t get good shots through and find the rebounds, it doesn’t matter.
Game 4 is about as must a win scenario as possible. The Rangers don’t want to come back to MSG Friday facing elimination. In past situations, they’ve responded well to adversity. There’s no panic. Unless the offense figures it out, it might fall on Lundqvist to be perfect. He’s yet to be these playoffs. Holtby’s been better. That can’t happen Wednesday. Neither can the Rangers’ best offensive performers being blanketed.