Fresh off of a huge 1-0 overtime victory on Saturday afternoon, the Washington Capitals take on the New York Rangers in game three of their best of seven first round playoff series on Monday night at 7:30 pm at Madison Square Garden (CSN, NBCSN). A win for the Caps and it is a 3-0 series lead, and for a Washington franchise that is 39 years old, it would be unchartered waters in a best of seven (the Caps did defeat the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, three games to none, in best of five first round matchups in 1984 and 1986, respectively).
This Capitals team continues to get better each game under first year head coach Adam Oates. After winning 3-1 in the first tilt, the Capitals played another very good game but thanks to the superb play of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (37 saves), the Caps weren’t able to gain the victory until the extra session. But Washington carried much of the play in that contest and despite the Rags getting forwards Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett back into the lineup for the first time this series, the Caps still have more depth and as a result, have been able to win the first two games. A big difference has been special teams with the Caps going for 2 for 7 with the man advantage while New York is 0 for 7. But that still leaves a ton of even strength time and if you look at the ice times of both squads, it is pretty apparent that Oates has more confidence in all of his skaters while Rangers bench boss John Tortorella relies mostly on three lines and five defensemen. The fact that Tortorella’s skilled guys are playing more at even strength could be a factor in why their power play is not as effective.
But as a former Capitals assistant coach has told me repeatedly, the playoffs are all about adjustments, and you can bet that Torts will do whatever he can in his own barn to get the Rags back in the series. Madison Square Garden will be amped up and with home ice the fiery coach now has last change. Midway through game two he switched up his lines putting Rick Nash with Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan and that line was the Rangers best. The typical matchup had that unit against the Caps second line of Mike Ribeiro, Martin Erat, and Troy Brouwer. Does that matchup continue in New York? Will Ryan Clowe be back in for the Rangers giving them another top six forward? What can Tortorella do to fix his ailing power play? Those are the easiest things that seem changeable for a Rangers club that the Caps have on the ropes. The Rangers are struggling to generate offense so does New York, which is primarily a defensive team that is coached to mostly play dump and chase, change things up and open up the game? I have a hard time seeing them try that given they haven’t been practicing it all season and they would likely be playing with fire with the Capitals highly skilled top two lines.
As for Washington, even when winning, they make adjustments and that’s another reason why they continue to improve. Oates’ club was much better on their breakouts on Saturday and the number of giveaways and odd man rushes dropped drastically. The Capitals also seem to have the Rangers tendencies down, especially in the offensive zone. A Rags team that relies heavily on diving to block shots was burnt on the game winner as Ribeiro faked Callahan to the ice before dishing to Mike “Game Over” Green for the winner. Oates might not have any lineup changes but given his penchant for video analysis and his technical savvy, you can bet that he’s given his club some things to help the team be even better.
After minimizing turnovers, which can lead to odd man rushes, another important thing for Washington to do to win in New York is to limit the ability of Rangers defensemen Michael Del Zotto to rush the puck up the ice. It was Del Zotto, along with the traded Marian Gaborik, who really hurt the Caps in last year’s series loss. After Del Zotto, New York really doesn’t have any guys on the blue line who are excellent puck rushers while the Capitals boast Green and John Carlson plus Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy bring that capability, as well. It is an advantage for the Caps that their defense is more mobile.
Still, you have to play the games and it is critical that Washington doesn’t get overconfident or lose focus on playing one shift at a time. Based on what I’ve seen from Oates, he will have his club ready to go in a hostile environment.
So will this be the year that Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally take a 3-0 lead in a best of seven playoff series?