Capitals Have To Protect Ovechkin And Holtby
By Stephen London
The Eastern Conference semifinals between the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals began with the teams splitting the first two games in each of the respective cities. The series shifts back to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 tonight. A road game rarely favors the visiting team, but the Capitals make an interesting case after having won four of their six road playoff games thus far.
There was some question about whether the NHL would suspend Alexander Ovechkin for his high hit on Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, but it appears the Capitals' captain will be able to play. But he is not out of the woods yet.
The Rangers are a physical team with some of the tallest players in the league. Just because the NHL did not suspend Ovechkin does not mean the Rangers will sit idly by and won't retaliate.
Aside from protecting Ovechkin, the Capitals need to minimize penalties, get on the scoreboard early to get the crowd out of the game and be physical against the Rangers' defense. It also wouldn't hurt Washington's chances to continue getting in front of shots, as they did with 26 blocks in Game 4.
Jeff Schultz led the way with nine blocked shots, but the key to evaluating defensemen is their plus/minus statistic. In the three Eastern Conference semifinal games Schultz has played in, his plus/minus is the worst on the team (-3).
The Rangers have some interesting numbers through the series' first four games, especially when it comes to plus/minus. Rookie sensation Chris Kreider, who had a goal and an assist in the Rangers' Game 1 victory, has not gotten a point since then. Kreider also has a -4 in the plus/minus department the last three games.
The Capitals could get a boost from Nick Backstrom if he plays as well as he did in Game 4. Backstrom, who is not known for his physicality, was passing well and using his body any way he could. Right before the 6-foot-1 Swede scored the Capitals' second goal in Game 4, he threw Rangers Artem Anisimov to the ice.
In Capitals coach Dale Hunter's system, every player is accountable for hits, defense and forechecking. He must continue to hold the Capitals accountable for their play, especially on the road in one of the most hostile environments in the NHL.
There are a few Capitals that have been surprisingly absent from the score sheet up to this point in this series. Marcus Johansson, who had one goal and two assists against the Boston Bruins, has been held to no points and a -2 plus/minus this series. The Rangers have also held Troy Brouwer in check, even though he had two crucial goals against the Bruins. Brooks Laich has only one assist in the four Eastern Conference semifinal games and is sporting a -2 as well.
These three talented Capitals are somewhat overdue to make a bigger impact in this series. Even though the core of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Mike Green helped Washington win Game 4, the Capitals will need scoring help from the third and fourth lines in order to come away with a series victory.
The Capitals committed only two penalties in Game 4 and have to continue to minimize errors to be successful. The Capitals gave the Rangers three power-play opportunities in each of the previous two games, and the Rangers scored one power-play goal over the span.
Another key for Washington is the defensemen helping their young goaltender, Braden Holtby. The Capitals' defense has not been clearing the front of the net, which led to the Rangers' triple-overtime Game 3 goal and the second goal they scored in Game 4. Too many times the Rangers have caught the Capitals' defensemen staring at the puck with no one guarding the pass to the crease.
The third and possibly most important key for the Capitals is to play their style. If the Capitals take the lead in Game 5, the Rangers will start to get chippy. Washington cannot back down, but at the same time they must protect their teammates. Bigger players -- Brouwer, Matt Hendricks and Laich -- need to be on the lookout for teammates that cannot take on the physical Rangers by themselves.
Capitals Players To Watch: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Brouwer, Johansson
Possible Unsung Hero: Mike Knuble
Rangers Players To Watch: Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Anisimov, Michael Del Zotto
Posted May 7, 2012