The Rangers showed a lot of heart staying alive after being minutes from elimination against the Capitals. But has New York stolen the series momentum for real?
Dominant goalie Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals were a couple minutes away from smothering the New York Rangers to death at Madison Square Garden Friday night. As time ticked down with the Caps up 1-0 in the third period, the Rangers had beaten Holtby once in a stretch of almost nine periods. They controlled the play and outshot their opponent but simply couldn’t solve the masked man.
Then, with 81 seconds left in a Rangers season with sky-high expectations, Chris Kreider to the rescue:
Kreider had some help from a deflection off Washington D-man Brooks Orpik, but this is why we say “they all count.” And Kreider deserves credit for releasing the puck the moment it kissed his stick.
The Blueshirts forced overtime but remained one goal away from a disastrous end to a Stanley Cup push that involved mortgaging a lot of the franchise’s future. This time it was Ryan McDonagh’s turn to make the MSG faithful erupt:
McDonagh won the game for New York at 9:37 of the first extra frame. The goal very much belongs to pivot Derek Stepan, though, who froze Holtby, making him bite on a potential shot, and showed great patience before setting up McDonagh.
So the Rangers travel to D.C. for Game 6 Sunday night. The big question is: was Game 5 the last-gasp effort of a team doomed to die, or a crucial shift in momentum that will rewrite a team’s season?
On one hand, the Rangers still have a major Holtby problem. He still stopped 41 of 43 shots for a .953 save percentage in defeat. New York averages fewer than two goals per game in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Blueshirts did a better job using what advantages they had over the Caps in Game 6.
Washington is the biggest, heaviest team in the NHL. It has a great coach in Barry Trotz, it has deadly skill in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky to complement its bruising forward brigade of Tom Wilson, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and company. It’s deep on defense. This team is built for the playoffs. The Rangers, however, are the fastest team in hockey. Kreider, McDonagh, Hagelin, Rick Nash, and Kevin Hayes, to name a few, can fly. The Rangers are one of the only teams with a deeper ‘D’ corps than the Caps and, even though Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle have been adventures this post-season, they are highly mobile. The Rangers used their mobility to outchance the slower Capitals in Game 5 and, interestingly enough, the speed generated more physicality. The Rangers were first on the forecheck and first to the punch. They outhit Washington for the first time since Game 1.
So maybe, just maybe, the Rangers finally figured out how best to play the Capitals: move their feet and keep skating circles around them. It’ll be interesting to see if the speedy Blueshirts outhit and outchance their opponent again in Game 6. If so, they can once again delay what will be a summer full of burning questions. Will they re-sign Martin St-Louis? Will the Yandle trade, which mortgaged Anthony Duclair and draft picks, go down as a failure? Is there a enough money to re-sign restricted free agents Stepan, Hagelin, J.T. Miller, Kreider and Hayes over the next two seasons? Is assistant GM Jeff Gorton as good as gone to the highest bidder?
Many questions. But for now, the Rangers don’t have to answer them.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin