The New York Rangers were the NHL's top regular season team this season, the defending Eastern Conference champions, and the pre-playoffs odds-on favorite to win the 2014-15 Stanley Cup. But after Game 3 of their second-round series against Washington ended with a 1-0 Capitals victory Monday, the Blueshirts are just two losses from elimination.
And if Washington's Braden Holtby stays on his current hot streak between the Caps' pipes and the Rangers' collection of highly-paid veteran stars remains unable to produce offense in front of star netminder Henrik Lundqvist, those two losses could come sooner than later.
The Blueshirts outshot the Capitals in every period (and by a final tally of 30-22) Monday at Verizon Center, but Holtby once again was dominant in net and posted his first shutout this post-season and second playoff shutout of his NHL career. He did get some help from his teammates – the Caps blocked 27 shots to the Rangers' 12 – but for as mesmerizing as superstar winger Alex Ovechkin has been on offense for Washington in this series, Holtby has been his equal on the defensive side. Lundqvist normally would give the Rangers the advantage in many other matchups, but so far, it's been a wash. And that means the real difference makers have to come from players who don't play net.
So far this round, the Rangers' collection of well-compensated marquee names simply hasn't got the job done in that regard. Winger Rick Nash had a game-high seven shots on net Monday, but hasn't scored since Game 2 of the first round and has just a single assist in three games against Washington. Martin St-Louis is still looking for his first playoff goal this year and also has only one assist against the Caps. Derick Brassard had three goals and four points against the Penguins last round, but has just one goal and didn't register a shot on net in Game 3. It goes without saying that isn't satisfactory, and that if the trend continues, the Capitals will send the Rangers home for the summer.
However, it's not just about offense. Granted, the Rangers had better possession numbers at even strength, but they were embarrassed in the faceoff circle, losing 40 of 58 puck-drops. Brassard won just seven of 22 draws, while fellow center Derek Stepan won only three of 16 draws. We knew going into the post-season Alain Vigneault's team wasn't perfect, but they can't afford many more holes to spring in their dam. The Capitals are just too opportunistic and too locked-in defensively – and unlike the Rangers, they're getting just enough offense to get by. Game 3's lone goal scorer was fourth-line winger Jay Beagle, who recorded the third NHL playoff goal of his career (and first this year) in the second period.
Nobody is counting out the Blueshirts. They showed last spring against the Penguins they could rebound from a bigger series deficit than the one they face at present. But this Caps team doesn't look like they're about to collapse. They've got one more game at home Wednesday before the series shifts back to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 Friday, and if Washington holds onto home ice advantage, the prospect of the Rangers winning three straight games against Holtby to avoid elimination seems like a long shot.
These are the moments where Rangers GM Glen Sather's familiar plan to bring in high-profile stars either via trade or free agency comes under the microscope. If St-Louis, Nash, this year's big trade-deadline acquisition Keith Yandle and the other Blueshirts veterans aren't able to impose their will against the Capitals and New York is eliminated, it will mark 15 years of futility under Sather's watch. At age 71, he's just a year younger than former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello (who stepped down Monday), and fans will rightfully ask legitimate questions as to why Sather doesn't step down and give the reins to a top hockey mind like assistant GM Jeff Gorton before another organization gives him their top job.
But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. The Rangers are down 2-1 in the series and need to win three of their remaining four games to stay alive. That could happen, and so too could they still win the East to punch a ticket to the Cup Final for the second straight season. Any team that has Lundqvist on it will have a chance of winning three of those four games, but you can say the same thing of Holtby and the Caps.
It's on Rangers players other than Lundqvist now. It's on the stars whose paychecks have so many zeroes in them, they look like an excitable teenager's text messages. Without contributions from Nash, St-Louis and others in the days to come, the Blueshirts are going to be chum in the water for the league's most dangerous goal scorer and an emerging leviathan in net.