“That’s what happens when we play a style where we block a lot shots. Sometimes those go in.” Braden Holtby (per @TarikElBashir)
It’s an easy narrative to blame Joel Ward’s untimely four-minute high-sticking penalty as the reason the Washington Capitals lost Game 5, 3-2 in overtime, to the New York Rangers, falling behind three games to two in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinals.
But in reality, the Capitals were lucky to be where they were considering how badly they were dominated in long stretches by the Rangers, and can only be disappointed in themselves for failing to convert on at least four odd-man rushes in the third period. The game should have been over before Ward’s stick rode up Carl Hagelin’s as they got tangled up on a defensive zone draw — lost by Jay Beagle to Brad Richards — and clipped Hagelin in the jaw, drawing blood in his mouth.
Even then, the Capitals penalty kill had just 22 seconds to kill off the clock against a Rangers power play that had been 0-for-3 on the night and held without a shot on goal. But another lost draw led a scrum at the side of the net with the Rangers playing 6-on-4. Ryan Callahan had two whacks at it that Braden Holtby was able to stay in front of, teetering in a splits position. The loose puck ended up on the stick of Richards, who was able to sneak a shot under the sprawling Holtby and just inside the far post to tie the game up with, get this, 6.6 second left on the clock.
It was as demoralizing a goal as anyone could imagine. Until the next one.
Of course the Rangers would score on the extended power play once play resumed in overtime, Marc Staal’s wrist shot deflecting off the inside of Brooks Laich’s leg and skittering past Holtby for the game winner, triggering streamers from the rafters and inside fireworks at fabled Madison Square Garden. You’d think the Rangers actually won something.
Ward’s penalty was damaging, no doubt. The Caps had a hard enough time keeping the Rangers at bay full strength, let alone having to kill a double minor as time expired. For his part, Ward took it pretty hard, telling reporters, “It’s a little mentally disturbing for sure right now. It’s tough to be in that position when you’re letting a team down.”
“I definitely let the squad down,” Ward said. “I cost us the game with a terrible play.”
But the eventual result was a culmination of a series of events throughout the game. The Capitals, quite frankly, were dominated for large stretches of this game, most notably in the first period, where the Rangers out-shot the Caps 17-4. That’s not a typo. For the game, the Rangers more than doubled the Caps shots on goal, 38-18. Even worse, the Rangers attempted a total of 78 shots against the Caps’ 35. That speaks to being dominated in terms of puck possession and the ability to produce scoring chances.
So does the number of shots blocked by the Caps. Washington got in front of 25 Rangers shots, but as Holtby’s quote above attests to, if you live by the blocked shot, sometimes you die by the one that sneaks through.
All that said, the Caps had several glorious chances in the third period to put this one away. With the Caps clinging to a one-goal lead, the Rangers were taking some chances as time dwindled, leading to at least four quality odd-man opportunities. But Alex Ovechkin fumbled passes on a two-on-one with Alexander Semin, and again later on a 3-on-1. Semin misfired on semi-breakaway, hitting the side of the net. And the most glorious opportunity of them all, Nicklas Backstrom hit the crossbar after faking Henrik Lundqvist (16 saves) with a beautiful forehand-backhand deke. The only thing missing was the finish.
The Rangers opened the scoring at 10:44 of the first period on Anton Stralman’s third goal of the playoffs, a snap shot from the outside of the right wing faceoff that fooled Holtby, beating him five-hole. Stralman did a good job getting Matt Hendricks to commit to blocking the shot, then easily skated around the Caps forward while he was on his knees.
Washington tied the game at 8:15 of the second frame. Brooks Laich (2) buried a bouncing puck in the slot on a pass from Alex Ovechkin from the half boards. John Carlson gave the Caps the lead with a power play marker at 4:20 of the third period, firing a slap shot from the high slot that ticked off Lundqvist’s outstretched glove hand.
Now, the Capitals must lick their wounds, come home, regroup, and try to find a way to block Game 5 out of their minds, as hurtful as it might be. This team hasn’t done anything the easy way this season, but they really have their work cut out for them now. Every minute these games are tied, Dale Hunter and his coaching staff are happy, it means they only need one goal to win the game. Unfortunately, it also means they’re one mistake away from a loss, as they found out all too painfully Monday night.
CAPS NOTES: Alex Ovechkin did not have a shot on goal in 19:08. He had one blocked and missed another.
Washington was out-hit 29-14. New York was 28-of-49 (57%) in the dot, including winning the last seven draws of the game.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.