WASHINGTON -- Hit totals rarely are the best statistic to gauge why one team won and the other lost, but what showed up on the score sheets in Games 3 and 4 does provide yet another example of how the New York Rangers were able to break even in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Washington Capitals.
The Rangers owned a 71-42 advantage in hits in Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden, including a 38-20 edge in Game 4. They won both by identical 4-3 scores and know part of the reason why is because of how physical they were against the Capitals, particularly on their top forwards and defensemen with an aggressive and improved forecheck.
"In playoff hockey you've got to be physical, earn momentum that way, finish checks, key in on their top guys," Rangers forward Rick Nash said. "It's definitely one of the reasons for our success in the last two games."
The key for the Rangers will be to bring that same type of physicality into Game 5 Friday at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m. NBCSN, TSN, RDS2). That means they have to stay consistent with their forecheck and use it to create offensive chances, something they struggled to do in Games 1 and 2.
Despite outhitting the Capitals in the first two games of the series by a combined 99-82, the Rangers scored one goal and lost both games. They established their forecheck in Games 3 and 4 and combined for eight goals.
"Right from the start I thought we've been physical as far as finishing our hits and getting on their [defensemen] and making them play hard minutes. I thought that part of the game was fine," forward Ryane Clowe said. "We needed to get a bit more offense from it and that happened [in Game 4]."
Clowe said a key is to be particularly hard on players like defensemen Mike Green and John Carlson, each of whom played more than 24 minutes in Game 4. Green played a team-high 25:28.
"You've got Green playing 25 [minutes] and other guys 23 or 24, and they've got to be hard minutes, especially for the guys who like to jump [into the rush]," Clowe said. "You've got to finish them and make sure they don't get back up ice. I thought we did a real good job of being hard in that area and around our net on rebounds."
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist certainly took note of it.
"I look at my game and the last couple of games I don't think we had that many scoring chances against compared to the first two, so the guys are doing a good job controlling them," Lundqvist said. "They're still a tough team to control because of their skill, but the way we've been playing physically, it's been a big part of our success the last two games."
Having Clowe back in the lineup didn't hurt. He missed the first three games of the series with an undisclosed injury, but returned for Game 4, and his size and ruggedness made a difference in helping the Rangers establish their forecheck, especially with his physicality along the walls.
"I thought him stepping in [Wednesday] after the time he has missed, I thought he did a really good job at that," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of Clowe on Thursday. "I think that helps a [Taylor] Pyatt and a Brian [Boyle] to see that. When you can roll that right through the game, it's good to have because that's where the games are won and lost, on the walls. He [Clowe] wants to make a difference, so it worked out well for us [Wednesday]."
Tortorella also praised Pyatt's physical play in Game 4 during his press conference Friday morning.
"He had a number of good shifts along the wall, some in the offensive zone but some in the defensive zone as far as getting pucks out," Tortorella said.
The Rangers will need more of the same Friday night. It could be a difference in going home up 3-2 or trailing in the series.
"I just know that's an important part of playoff hockey," Tortorella said of the physical play. "The more we have that in our lineup, the better we're going to be."