The New York Rangers have made a habit of winning games by a 2-1 score in the 2015 NHL playoffs. Five of their seven post-season wins heading into Sunday night's second-round showdown with Washington came by that score, with a similar pattern repeating: the Blueshirts eke out just enough offense to win, then turn to superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist with a look that says, "over to you, big guy." So when the Rangers – who were on the road and facing elimination for a second consecutive game – finished the first period up 2-0 on a pair of fantastic goals from Chris Krieder, they looked as if they were turning a corner and making themselves into a nightmare Game 7 opponent for the Caps.
But they had to play the other two periods. Or, at least, some of them did. Mostly, it was back to the "over to you, big guy" routine with Lundqvist. And although the Blueshirts hung on to defeat the Capitals 4-3 Sunday, and tie the series at three games apiece, their lack of consistency and reliance on their goalie is troubling.
Both teams came strongly out of the gate at Verizon Center, with the Rangers firing a whopping 20 shots at Caps star Braden Holtby and Washington replying with 17 shots on Lundqvist. But, more or less from the moment the second period began, the story was quite different: winger Jason Chimera scored to cut their lead in half just 28 seconds into the middle frame, and the Capitals held their opponents to only four shots in the second while getting another 18 shots at Lundqvist. The Blueshirts got two goals early in the third (from Rick Nash and Dan Boyle) to pull ahead, but their two shots on net were half of the Rangers' shot total in the third, and Washington got another 10 shots on Lundqvist.
Two of those – from Evgeny Kuznetsov at 7:40 and Joel Ward at 10:33 – went in, and returned the Rangers to their familiar defensive shell. Lundqvist was often brilliant, and the Rangers were thoroughly overwhelmed in the possession department. The Blueshirts had more than double the number of blocked shots the Caps did (34-15), but that was no compliment to them. At times, they had nothing resembling cohesion or even a passing interest in playing defense.
Washington was far and away the better team and may have deserved a better fate, but they're also on the precipice of blowing a 3-1 series lead and will need statement games from some of their stars who have been quiet of late. For instance, star winger Alex Ovechkin hasn't posted a single goal or point in the past four games, and center Nicklas Backstrom has just a single assist (in Game 1) in the entire series. They've received admirable production from a number of players – including Kuznetsov, who scored his fifth of the playoffs, and Joel Ward, who had a goal and three points Sunday. But Holtby has been their MVP thus far, and just as the Rangers can't keep turning to Lundqvist, the Caps must take some pressure off their last line of defense if they're to move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
That's what Game 7 at Madison Square Garden is likely to come down to. You know you're going to get near-perfect performances from the two men in net. At this stage, they're essentially a wash. The winner will be decided by the quality of play of the skaters in front of them. Will Nash (whose goal Sunday was only his second of the post-season) and/or Martin St-Louis (still searching for his first goal after 11 games) step up and confirm the Caps' collapse? Or will Ovechkin and/or Backstrom deliver a death blow to the Blueshirts' attempt at repeating as Eastern champs? Will a Rangers youngster such as Kreider (whose two goals give him five in the playoffs) or Kevin Hayes be the hero, or will a Washington youngster like Kuznetsov or Andre Burakovsky rise to the occasion?
Either way, Game 7 promises to be a classic. But if the Rangers revert to that defensive shell, don't be surprised if Washington beats them at their own game.