Yes, the Washington Capitals lost 4-3 to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden Monday night.
And yes, the Capitals squandered a perfect opportunity to take a commanding three-games-to-none lead in this best of seven series.
But before Caps fans begin to hyperventilate and overreact, let me say this – the Rangers simply aren’t very good.
Look, I’ve been a fan of the Washington Capitals my entire life and am painfully aware of the countless number of playoff collapses and heartache this franchise has doled out over the years.
As a defense mechanism to cope with being a D.C. sports fan, I always keep my guard up. Hoping for the best, while simultaneously preparing for the worst-possible outcome is honestly the only way I know how to root for a team like the Caps.
Whether we’re talking about blowing a three-games-to-one lead against the hated Pittsburgh Penguins one more than one occasion during the 90’s or dragging things out to triple overtime before falling flat, history shows the Capitals are more than capable of self destructing in spectacular fashion.
And yet, for some reason I am remarkably calm at the moment.
Sure, the Rangers are a talented bunch. After all, they’re the same team that sent the Capitals packing from the playoffs just last season.
For one reason or another, I remain confident that the Caps are the better team. Sure, Henrik Lundqvist is a proven commodity – an elite player who is fully capable of winning a postseason series on his own.
But, dating back to 2008-09, the Capitals now have 22 games worth of film on Lundqvist. Not that they need it.
Pepper him with shots from the point and crash the net. The Rangers love to overcrowd the shooting lanes, so use their defenders to obstruct Lundqvist’s view and eventually the pucks will go in.
Shoot early. Shoot often. Don’t try to be too cute and don’t try to make the perfect pass every single time you take the ice. Keep it simple, stupid.
Yes, Washington lost Game 3 and must now rally to keep the Rangers from tying up the series Wednesday night, but here’s the primary reason why I’m not panicking – New York caught every single break. Seemingly every single questionable call went their way. And they still barely hung on to win the game.
I’m not saying that to shift the blame to the referees for Washington’s loss. They clearly wanted to call a tight game and too many of the Capitals players were undisciplined and put themselves in a position to be whistled for an infraction.
In the first two games of this series, each team had seven powerplay chances. Through the first 30 minutes of Game 3, the Capitals were called for six penalties.
At some point, the guys on the Caps’ bench should have realized what’s going on and gone out of their way to stay out of the penalty box – especially considering just how pitiful the team’s penalty kill has been all season long.
That never happened and the Rangers were the better team on this night. They’re not the better team in this series though.
I was chatting with a buddy of mine after Game 1 about this first-round match-up and he said something that really hit home with me. He said to take all of the players from Washington and all of the players from New York and put them on two teams in completely different cities that you don’t care about.
His point was, if you’re not emotionally invested in the Capitals and you simply looking at these two franchises as an unbiased outsider, it is clear Washington is the better team.
When guys like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are playing at this level, they’re fully capable of competing with any team in the NHL. And while Braden Holtby is the youngest goalie in the postseason, he’s quickly showing he’s able to handle the pressure of the postseason.
Add in the most lethal powerplay in hockey, as well as grinders like Eric Fehr, Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer up front and blue-collar workers like Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy and John Erskine on the back end and there’s a lot to like about the ’13 Capitals.
Conversely, what exactly has New York done through these first three games? Lundqvist has been stellar all series long and Derick Brassard picked up three points in Game 3, but that’s about it. Otherwise, they look over-matched in all three phases of the game.
Highly-paid players like Rick Nash and Brad Richards (who account for roughly $14.50 million per season) have yet to make an impact – combining for no goals and one assist thus far. And even with the benefit of half a dozen powerplays in the first 30 minutes of the contest, New York has still only managed to convert one out of 13 opportunities on the man advantage in this series.
They’ve scored five goals through three games – one on a fluky deflection off of Erskine’s skate and two or three others came courtesy of poor positioning by a Caps defender that allowed a scoring chance from point-blank range.
During his first season in Washington, Capitals coach Adam Oates has already shown he’s a film junky. Sometime Tuesday he’ll get together with his players and break down the mental mistakes that allowed the Rangers to get back into this series.
By the time the puck drops for Game 4, the guys in the locker room will know exactly what went wrong and what needs to happen next time to ensure those kind of breakdowns and mental lapses don’t happen again.
And unless the Capitals find themselves in the penalty box another six or seven times a game, I fully expect them to rebound and continue to outplay the opposition.
During five-on-five play, they’ve skated circles around the Rangers. Their powerplay has been better. Ditto for their penalty kill. In short, they’re the better team in this series.
As long as they continue to work hard and play smart hockey, the Capitals should be able to bounce back and eventually eliminate the Rangers for the third time in four postseason match-ups.