recap rangers

Only one of the 16 teams that makes the Stanley Cup playoffs ends up winning its final game of the season; for the other 15, the day the season ends stings quite a bit. On Sunday night at Capital One Arena, the Caps became the first of those 16 teams to reach the end of the line when they suffered a 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 4 of the first-round series between the two Metropolitan Division rivals.

New York – the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team in the regular season – came as advertised. They were beastly on both special teams in this series, and they ultimately overpowered the Capitals in that aspect of the game, scoring multiple special team goals in each of the last three games of the first-ever first-round sweep suffered by the Capitals.

In the four games, New York netted half a dozen power-play goals and a pair of shorthanded tallies.

“Obviously, special teams played a huge factor in the series,” says Caps’ center Dylan Strome. “Give them credit; they did a fantastic job on special teams, and we couldn’t recover. Obviously, we were in every game, but it’s a crappy way to end the season. It hurts.”

Rangers’ goaltender Igor Shesterkin also showed his postseason mettle; he allowed only seven goals in 240 minutes of hockey, posting a 1.75 GAA and a .931 save pct. along the way. Aside from yielding the game’s first goal to Washington in the first periods of Games 2 and 3 – goals his teammates answered quickly on both occasions – Shesterkin never once permitted a goal that would give Washington a lead at any point in the four games. The Caps concluded the series with a total of 3 minutes and 21 seconds worth of lead time.

“They’re a heck of a team; they’re built really well,” says Caps’ right wing Tom Wilson of the Rangers. “We battled. We’ve got a lot of different experience levels on our side, and the young guys played well. I think we’ll reflect on this year as a special group that came together and battled for each other, earned a lot of experience and ran into a good Rangers team, and just couldn’t get it going.”

Game 4 began inauspiciously for the Capitals. Less than a minute into the contest, Caps defenseman Nick Jensen – back in the lineup for the first time in just over two weeks because of an upper body injury – lost the handle on the puck right in front of Caps’ goalie Charlie Lindgren. Rangers’ winger Kaapo Kakko quickly pounced on it and put it under the bar for a 1-0 New York lead just 57 seconds into the contest.

The Caps kept their cool and kept at it, and they generated a number of looks and chances in the offensive zone, most notably a few whacks from in tight from Wilson that didn’t pay dividends. But eventually, they broke through and pulled even.

Strome won a puck battle on the half wall, and got it to Aliaksei Protas, who appeared to be ready to fire a shot until he noticed that Martin Fehervary had completely shaken his man and was wide open on the weak side. Protas dished it to him, and Fehervary netted his second playoff goal in as many Sundays, squaring the score at 1-1 at 14:54 of the first.

But for the third time in four games in the series, the Rangers’ power play was heard from. With just 14.7 seconds remaining in the first, Vincent Trocheck bagged his third goal of the series to restore the New York lead at 2-1. Caps’ coach Spencer Carbery had noted on a few occasions that his scoring-challenged club needed to try to win a 2-1 game, but New York effectively precluded that possibility by scoring a pair of goals in the first period of each of the last three games of the set.

Washington killed off another Rangers man advantage in the immediate wake of the first one, and then the Caps went to work in the middle frame. The Caps played with more cohesion and connectivity in the second, and it showed in the Rangers’ struggles to spend any meaningful time in the Washington end; the Caps held the Blueshirts without a shot on net for more than a dozen minutes in the middle frame.

A couple of minutes ahead of the midpoint of the middle period, the Caps notched the equalizer on a brilliant individual effort from Hendrix Lapierre, who scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game against the Rangers here on opening night of the 2021-22 season.

In neutral ice, Alex Alexeyev laid a hit on Jack Roslovic, dislodging the puck and putting it on Lapierre’s stick. From just above the Washington line, Lapierre turned on the jets and skated effortlessly as the only red sweater among a quartet of white ones. He dangled down the middle, carrying the puck on his backhand to protect it, and as he closed in on Shesterkin he let a backhander fly. The New York netminder made the stop, but the rebound came to Lapierre’s tape, and he quickly went to his forehand and expertly placed a shot to the far side where Shesterkin couldn’t get it, knotting the score at 2-2 at 7:48 of the second.

“I saw a little bit of space, and it was a big goal when it happened, and I was super happy,” relates Lapierre of his first career Stanley Cup playoff goal. “And we kind of got some momentum after that, but again, we weren’t able to score.”

Lapierre’s goal came in the midst of the Caps’ aforementioned streak of holding New York without a shot, and with the building buzzing, Washington tried for that elusive go-ahead goal. The Caps had to settle for getting to the second intermission with the score tied, a feat they managed only twice in the series; the first was when Game 1 was scoreless after 20 minutes of play.

In the third, the Caps went shorthanded early, and the Rangers wasted little time in making them pay. Artemi Panarin scored 11 seconds into the power play to give New York a 3-2 lead.

New York fell back into its 1-3-1 and limited Washington to just five shots on net in the game’s final 16-plus minutes. The best of those opportunities came with just over five minutes remaining when Alexeyev had a look from almost the same spot from where Fehervary scored in the first frame, but Shesterkin had the answer for that shot, and for Strome’s follow-up bid as well.

Washington took another penalty late in the third to hamper its comeback effort; Roslovic netted one last power-play goal in a vacant Caps’ cage in the game’s final minute to account for the 4-2 final.

“I thought the specialty teams did a really good job, so the power play and penalty kill were really good,” says Rangers’ coach Peter Laviolette. “At 5-on-5, it drew more to the even line. Especially in a game like tonight, they fought extremely hard, trying to fight for another day. And the game wasn’t easy; I don’t think we were at our best in the first two periods. The first period was somewhat even; I thought they definitely had the edge in the second period, and I thought we played a real smart, hard third period. I thought it was our best period of the night.

“You’ve got to give Washington a ton of credit because they went through a lot with their injuries and what was going on with them inside their room, and the players that were leaving their lineup. They fought hard to get to the playoffs, and then they fought extremely hard inside of the playoffs. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”

History will show that the Rangers took the Caps out in four games, and that only one of those four losses was by the margin of a single goal. But the Caps have nothing to hang their heads over. They came into this series as an undermanned underdog of a team that sold off three players at the trade deadline and finished the season with a vastly different roster than the one it had on opening night last October.

It’s very difficult to make the playoffs in the National Hockey League. It’s exponentially harder for a team that is a seller at the trade deadline to do so, but that’s one of several significant achievements for the Caps in a season of low expectations for Washington in the hockey world.  

“You always get caught off guard by this, because you don’t feel like it’s going to end,” says Caps' coach Spencer Carbery. “And then all of a sudden when it happens, it hits you. And you’re not ready. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take me especially some time to reflect back and look at all of the positives. Because that’s going to be the story: ‘Wow, the Caps got back into the playoffs.’ There are a lot of positives, and I will get there at some point.

“But once you get there, you want to win. You don’t want to just show up and get your participation ribbon and say, ‘Yay, we made the playoffs.’ And [we] got swept, and that’s disappointing and really frustrating.

“So just the way this went down was pretty disappointing, but at some point, we’ll be able to reflect on a lot of the positives.”