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Rangers need special teams, top players to be better

by Dan Rosen

WASHINGTON -- Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals wasn't a total washout for the New York Rangers. There were some positives to take from their 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Thursday.

The Rangers generated some sustained offense, enough to fire 36 shots on goal and have 79 attempts at the net. They nearly scored a shorthanded goal and overall killed penalties well -- save for one power-play goal scored by Alex Ovechkin in the second period. Henrik Lundqvist was sharp in goal, except for the Jason Chimera goal that he'd want back.

"There are definitely a lot of positives to build off of," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "We need to correct some things, but we're happy overall with our game."

Happy may be a strong word for Callahan to use. The Rangers trail 1-0 in the best-of-7 series and, as their captain said, they still have a lot to correct.

Here are five things the Rangers must do better if they want to win Game 2 Saturday at Verizon Center (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, TSN, RDS):

1. Stay out of the penalty box

The Rangers did some good things on their penalty kill in Game 1 and had a few shorthanded chances, including a breakaway by Carl Hagelin when they led 1-0 early in the second period. However, they simply can't give Washington as many as five power-play chances in Game 2 like they did in Game 1.

It's a recipe for disaster against a Capitals power play that was the best in the NHL during the regular season at 26.8 percent.

"We can't be there," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of the penalty box. "We will not win games if we're there. Forget about how you defend it, we can't be in the box that much."

The Rangers killed Washington's first three power plays in Game 1, but they couldn't hold the Capitals in check on their fourth chance as Ovechkin scored 6:59 into the second period to tie the game at 1-1.

"You can't just continue to let them get momentum," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "The first couple of ones we were able to deflect, but if you give them that fourth and fifth one and they get comfortable out there, it's going to be tough to stop them. We have to be smarter."

2. Make their power plays count

Step two in the special teams game is to convert on the power play. They didn't in Game 1, even when they had a 5-on-3 for 56 seconds in the second period, and it played a role in costing them the game.

"Score a goal," Tortorella said when he was asked what the Rangers could do differently on their power play. "The 5-on-3, you'd like to get something there and we didn't. We still had four or five good chances on our power play, we didn't score. Certainly they do, we don't. Special teams is a big part of it. We continue to work at it, and hopefully we'll get something done."

Washington, though, deserves credit for doing a good job of not letting shots through -- the Capitals' penalty-killers combined for eight blocked shots. The Rangers put eight shots on goal and missed the net on another six attempts.

"They blocked a lot of shots, they definitely did, but when we got the puck to the net we had some chances," Callahan said. "We had some bodies there, some rebounds. [Braden] Holtby made some good saves on a couple of those plays. We've got to get a bounce here and there, and we get one or two on the power play if that happens."

3. Get off to a better start

It didn't help that the Rangers were on the penalty kill 34 seconds into the game because Mats Zuccarello jumped off the bench early, creating a penalty for too many men on the ice. Washington used its early power play to grab the momentum, and it held on to it until Hagelin gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead late in the first period.

Even though the Rangers weren't burned by their bad start -- Washington had a 12-1 advantage in shots on goal with just under seven minutes to play in the first period -- they need to be better at the beginning of Game 2 because it will help simmer down the crowd and take some of the emotion out of the building.

"We definitely want more of a territorial-type start," Tortorella said.

4. Better awareness through the middle

To have a better start, the Rangers will have to be better in the neutral zone than they were early in Game 1.

The Capitals see the neutral zone as the most important area on the ice for their system. They want to apply pressure there to force turnovers. They even play a risky style to do it by pushing up their forwards and defensemen.

The Rangers did not handle it well early in Game 1.

"One thing we talked about was we were able to get pucks into that neutral zone and we weren't strong enough on stick battles, loose pucks," McDonagh said. "We were reaching with one hand as opposed to skating and reaching with two hands. I think we got better as the game went on as far as winning battles there, but we want to try to start the game with a strong neutral zone."

If the New York Rangers are to even their series with the Washington Capitals on Saturday, special teams and their top players will be among the areas that require improvement. (Photo: Getty Images)

But the Rangers also now know they have to be aware of the home run pass, like the one Steve Oleksy made to Marcus Johansson to create the Capitals' second goal. Oleksy was in the middle of Washington's defensive zone when he saw Johansson get behind McDonagh and Dan Girardi. He made a perfect tape-to-tape saucer pass through the middle of the ice to send Johansson in on the breakaway.

5. Need more from the top guys

Rick Nash felt good about his game and his stat line showed that he was trying to be a factor. He had 16 shot attempts, including eight on goal and five that were blocked. Nash, though, wasn't as dangerous as he could have been with some of his chances, which actually goes for all of the Rangers' top skill players.

They were close, but they need to execute better to win Game 2.

Hagelin was by far the most dangerous of the Rangers forwards. He scored a goal and nearly had another on a shorthanded breakaway. For some reason he was limited to 25 seconds of power-play time, but that's not the real story here.

Brad Richards was invisible for most of the night and finished with one shot on goal in more than 22 minutes of ice time, including more than four minutes on the power play. Callahan had two shots on goal in more than 21 minutes of ice time.

Stepan, who was the NHL's Third Star of the Month in April, finished with an ineffective three shots on goal in more than 23 minutes of ice time. Zuccarello played nearly 22 minutes and had one shot on goal with a minus-2 rating.

Sure they created some sustained offense, but a lot of that was after they were trailing 3-1 and the chances weren't particularly great ones.


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