In their second-round showdown against the New York Rangers, the Washington Capitals have gained an advantage in large part due to the play of captain Alex Ovechkin and goalie Braden Holtby. Although Holtby was reliably outstanding again in Game 4 Wednesday, the Caps got their goals not from Ovechkin, but rookie left winger Andre Burakovsky – and for the third time in the second round, the Blueshirts didn't have enough offense to beat what little Washington could scrounge up, and lost 2-1 to give the Capitals a 3-1 series lead.
All of a sudden, the Rangers – who won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team and defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in five first-round games – are on the brink of elimination.
The 20-year-old Burakovsky, an Austrian-born Sweden drafted 23rd overall by the Caps in 2013, amassed nine goals and 22 points in 53 regular-season games this year, but had just one assist in seven playoff games this spring prior to Wednesday's action. However, after the Rangers opened Game 4's scoring six minutes into the second period on a Derick Brassard goal, Burakovsky replied some 10 minutes later with his first career NHL playoff goal, then scored the game-winner 24 seconds into the third period. Burakovsky and linemates Jay Beagle and Troy Brouwer were solid all night for Washington and took the pressure to produce off bigger names such as Nicklas Backstrom (who didn't register a shot on net in 19:54 of ice time).
The Capitals haven't scored more than two goals in any second-round game thus far, but Holtby's performance between the pipes has allowed them to squeak past the Blueshirts three times. Holtby stopped 28 of 29 Rangers shots in Game 4 – including a penalty shot Carl Hagelin took eight minutes into the third period – and the 25-year-old now has the best goals-against average (1.48) and save percentage (.950) of any post-season netminder still in action.
His counterpart, Henrik Lundqvist (who started his 100th straight playoff game for the Rangers Wednesday) hasn't performed poorly, either. But Lundqvist essentially is in the same boat as Canadiens star Carey Price: next-to-perfect, but not absolutely perfect at a time his team demands perfection in net because they're not doing their part. To wit: Brassard has nearly one-third of all Rangers playoff goals this year, scoring five of the team's 16 goals. Star winger Rick Nash has just one goal in nine games, and Martin St-Louis has yet to score. Their veterans' struggles look even worse because they're not getting production from their supporting cast of scorers – and that goes for their forwards and defensemen.
If there's any solace to be taken from the latest loss, it's that Lundqvist and the Blueshirts were in the same position at this time last year, trailing the Penguins 3-1 in their second-round series before storming back to win and eventually come out of the Eastern Conference to play in the Stanley Cup Final. That said, they're up against arguably the playoffs' best goalie in Holtby, and a big-moment monster in Ovechkin. There's a very real possibility it could be all over for the Rangers Friday when Game 5 goes down in Madison Square Garden, if not shortly thereafter. And if the Blueshirts do bow out in this round, it will be fascinating to see the road team ownership chooses for the management group and the roster. St-Louis will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and although he made a tremendous pass to Brassard for his Game 4 goal, his $5.6 million salary cap hit may turn out to be an issue.
Washington shouldn't start sizing Stanley Cup rings just yet – their lack of offense very well could be their downfall against a Tampa Bay Lightning team on the verge of eliminating Montreal and another excellent goalie in Carey Price – but at the moment, they look less afraid to lose than the Rangers. The roles were reversed for the Blueshirts in the first round in that regard, and unless head coach and Jack Adams finalist Alain Vigneault can't reverse them again, there will be no third round for them this year.