NEW YORK – Special-teams play helped swing momentum in the Washington Capitals' favor in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the New York Rangers. But after the Capitals rode their power play and penalty kill to a 2-0 series lead, a sudden flip may have salvaged this series for the New York Rangers.
Washington took Game 1 of the series thanks to a power-play marker from Alex Ovechkin and a penalty kill that shut out a Rangers' man advantage that enjoyed 56 second of 5-on-3 play midway through the second period. Mike Green's power-play tally in overtime then gave Washington a 1-0 win in Game 2.
But in Game 3 Monday night, New York scored a power-play goal and notched another tally just as a Capitals' penalty expired before killing off a last-minute 6-on-4 power play.
Just like that, Washington's apparent special-teams advantage was flipped, and the Rangers reaped the benefits in a 4-3 victory.
"Their first two goals were kind of off the power play, so that gave them a lot of life. Five-on-five, I still think we out-chanced them," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "We took too many [penalties] early. We got out of our rhythm and guys used up minutes that maybe later on cost us."
Brian Boyle's game-tying goal midway through the second period appeared to be on a power play, but officials later ruled that Joel Ward finished serving his high-sticking penalty just as Boyle scored. Derick Brassard later gave New York a 2-1 lead early in the second while Ovechkin served Braden Holtby's tripping minor. After collecting just 10 shots and no goals through seven power-play chances in the first two games, New York had 11 shots with the man advantages through Game 3's first 40 minutes.
And most importantly, they hit pay dirt against a Capitals' penalty kill that had allowed just two goals in the previous 10 games and successfully killed off 35 of 40 attempts over the previous 14 contests.
"I thought on our power play we shot the puck more. Even if you don't score on it, although we did tonight, we generated some momentum," said Rangers coach John Tortorella, who cited one player in particular who had recently taken over New York's first power-play unit. "John Moore, what's that, his third [playoff] game? He's running our power play now. We're asking an awful lot [of him]. He made some mistakes, but I thought he handled himself really well."
Tortorella insisted that the team's only plan to resuscitate a power play that ranked 23rd during the regular season was to get more shots. And with six attempts in the opening two periods, they certainly succeeded in doing that. But Washington did identify some new wrinkles in the Rangers man-advantage play.
"I think on their breakout it was a little different. We saw a couple of different looks on their breakouts. End zone was pretty similar. But we'll make adjustments," Caps forward Jay Beagle said. "Obviously, we can't be in the box that much. It hurts us. We were playing really well five-on-five. It kills the momentum when we have to kill that many penalties."
The Rangers' greatest special-teams contribution in Game 3 came in the closing moments, as Washington spent the final 1:40 of regulation with Holtby on the bench in favor an extra skater and Brad Richards off for slashing. But the vaunted Capitals' power play that scored in each of the series' opening two games was held without a shot.
"They did a good job of containing and keeping us to the outside. We didn't execute. We were looking, we were waiting," Caps defenseman Mike Green said. "We should have just thrown pucks to the net and maybe banged in a dirty goal. That was the only way we were going to score."
Washington's lack of production on the game-ending 6-on-4 advantage wasn't lost on the team's coaching staff, who watched video of the sequence shortly after New York wrapped up a season-saving win. Should that opportunity arise again in Game 4, Washington may look to do things differently.
"We just watched it again. They did a really good job protecting him (Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist). We just couldn't figure out a better way to get to the net. Probably a little too cute with it," Oates said. "You don't want to throw the puck away. Then they can shoot it down and get an empty-netter. So they're trying to make a smart play. It's hard. Those guys are such perfectionists. It's something you have to coach them through."