NEW YORK -- The margin for error is so thin between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals that it cannot be seen with the naked eye. Each team is playing such a tight, defensive game that any mistake could be the only one in a game.
Playing on that edge can make the game nerve-wracking for fans, but as the Rangers and Capitals prepare to play Game 5 of their deadlocked best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinal series at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, that type of contest has become old hat.
In the Capitals' seven-game first-round win against the Boston Bruins, save for a stretch of two minutes, 54 seconds, neither team had more than a one-goal edge during a game. The Rangers' seven-game first-round victory against the Ottawa Senators wasn't as snug, but five games were one-goal games with a sixth decided by two goals thanks to an empty-net goal.
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"Even if you go back to the last month of the regular season, those were the types of games we were in," Caps center Brooks Laich said. "When we got to the playoffs and got into these games, there was no surprise, there was no wow factor or anything that caught us off-guard. We've been used to playing this way. I think coming in with that last month especially, it really helped us prepare for this style of play."
Both teams have offensively-gifted stars that would benefit greatly from playing a more wide-open style, but everyone has bought into the systems of their respective coaches. That means a stronger commitment to defense and blocking shots, and less emphasis on taking calculated risks designed to generate goals.
Fewer scoring chances comes with the knowledge that fewer mistakes are acceptable. Most goals are the result of errors in judgment, be it a pinch by a defenseman that leads to an odd-man rush or a missed pass in the neutral zone that sends a team in the other direction, but both teams are so used to it at this point that it doesn't factor into how they approach a decision.
"There's a lot at stake," Rangers center Brian Boyle said. "You can't really worry about mistakes. It's about trying to go out and make a play. Mistakes are going to happen. You just try to go out and make a play. It's a couple of stingy teams, but you never know how each game is going to play itself out. For the most part, you're just looking to make plays."
"Of course, you don't want to make a mistake, but you're not a robot or something else," Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. "Everybody is going to do mistakes and everybody is going to lose a guy and there's going to be an empty spot out there. You just try to be focused and you don't try to make mistakes."
That also means every shot each goaltender faces carries that much more weight. Of the seven teams remaining in the postseason, the Capitals (2.18) and Rangers (2.09) are scoring the fewest goals per game. In nearly every game for each team during the playoffs, a third goal allowed has usually meant certain doom.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is well aware of the low-scoring nature of this series, but he's not letting it affect his mindset by staying positive in the face of that pressure.
"My approach doesn't change during a game," Lundqvist said. "I try to approach it the same way. Instead of thinking, 'I can't give up the next shot,' I try to focus on, 'I want to save the next shot.' It's a big difference in the way you think. It doesn't matter what the score is during a game. You try to approach it the same way.
"I think it was different against Ottawa, but it is a tight series. It's a mistake here or there, a big play in each game that might be the difference. I expect it to be that way moving forward. We're playing a good team, but we feel pretty confident right now. We know what we have to do."
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