Sunday, March 7, 2010

Capital Depth Outshines Rangers | WAS 2 NYR 0

For their final regular season visit to the Verizon Center, the Rangers welcomed back Marian Gaborik to the line-up. His signature game as a Ranger came early in the season -- the 4th game, when the Rangers defeated the Washington Capitals, 4-3, in scintillating style led by his 2 goals in the 3rd period.

Fast forward about 55 games and it turns out that the game may have been the highwater mark of the season. That loss was only one of 3 home losses the Caps have suffered all season. As shown in Saturday night's game, right now Gaborik is a shadow of himself thanks to his knee injury and the impact of the Olympics. His presence on the ice served to disrupt the team's recent momentum as he had little to offer the team against Washington.

During his 4 game absence, the Rangers had gone 2-0-1 and their scoring proficiency had picked up as the Rangers had scored 12 goals in the past 3 games. So, would it come as a surprise that the Rangers would be shut out? No, not in the least. The Caps prevailed by 2-0 in a game that saw none of the physicality of the Rangers' war with Pittsburgh on Thursday night. The game recap is here. It was the first game of the season series in which the home team prevailed. The Rangers lost the season series, 3 games to 1.

The Caps were going to be a formidable foe -- 24-3-3 at home (undefeated at home since December 28), backstopped by Jose Theodore on a 12-0-2 streak and scoring 3 or more goals in 23 consecutive games. The Caps are a favorite to win the Stanley Cup and it is easy to see why with their scoring, their depth and the recent trade deadline pickups to solidify their defense and penalty killing. The Rangers were able to snap one of those streaks as the Capitals only scored 2 goals. The Rangers successfully held Alex Ovechkin off the scoring chart as he has gone 6 games without a goal, but unlike the Rangers, the Capital line-up is deep as they have 9 players with 15 or more goals (and 5 of them have more than 20). The Rangers have one goal scorer with more than 20.

On a night when their top offensive talent was scoreless,
the Caps defense and goalies Jose Theodore did
enough to make 2 goals stand up.

Coming off their OT loss to the free-wheeling Penguins on the Thursday night, it was going to be interesting to see how the Rangers would react to that distressing defeat in facing the NHL's highest scoring team both in goals and overall points. The Rangers tightened up their defense. They forechecked well and back checked enough to disrupt several Capital rushes. The Rangers played well when the game was 5-on-5. They got their forecheck working throughout the game forcing the Caps to cough up the puck in their own end several times. Ryan Callahan had the most energy of any Ranger, as usual, and was supported at times by the efforts of Chris Drury, Sean Avery and Brandon Dubinsky. The 4th line -- Brandon Prust, Jody Shelley and Brian Boyle saw a significant amount of ice time as it effectively bottled up the Caps.

Alex Auld made his debut for the Rangers to give Henrik Lundqvist a night off after he faced 55 shots on Thursday night. Auld was terrific as he played angles, blocked a series of shots from Ovechkin and Mike Green that went in the last time the teams met in the 6-5 donnybrook at MSG. He stopped Eric Fehr on a breakway early in the first period to prove that he was going to be sharp.

The first goal he yielded was in the first period during a Capitals 2 man advantage. Like in the OT against Pittsburgh, the Rangers were gamely fighting off the penalty and were near completion. But as with Thursday night, with 3 seconds to go, Eric Fehr converted a pass from Tomas Fleischman that was intended for Brooks Laich (who Auld was keyed on) but the puck jumped over his stick to Fehr who found the top right corner open. In the second period, during a defensive breakdown, Dubinsky allowed Eric Belanger (a trade deadline pickup) to get behind him to convert a Laich pass past Auld with 6 1/2 minutes gone.

Auld proved that he still has talent to be a quality backup and kept the Rangers in the game. Unfortunately, Theodore was solid, not spectacular, and a little bit lucky. Sometimes that is all it takes to win.

The Rangers generated several chances during the game but they were not frequent enough (or successful) to rattle Theodore. In the 2nd period, with the team trailing 1-0, Dubinsky received a misguided clearing pass from Shaone Morrison and walked in on Theodore only to be denied. During a couple of scrums in front of the net in the second and third periods, Theodore was able to keep the puck out of the net, and Mike Green supported his goalie on one occasion by clearing one puck that was sitting in the crease. In the 3rd period, Callahan almost converted a spin around shot form in close but Theodore was able to stay close to the post and swallow it up. Finally, in the waning minutes of the 3rd period, Dubinsky received a pass in the Caps zone as he came out of the penalty box and he and Gaborik had the chance to break in on a 2-on-0 but Dubinsky lost the puck.

The Rangers' tour of the top teams in the Eastern Conference continues tonight with a home game against the Sabres. They continue to reside outside the playoff dividing line and their competition teams have a game or two on hand. Other than winning games and lots of them, there is no assurance of a playoff spot.

The Rangers have shown more passion, scoring, hitting and chippiness than recently. But it is obvious that that it is coming too late in the season to make a material difference. As I have said before, the gap between the talent of the Rangers and teams like Washington and Pittsburgh has become apparent during the past 2 games. Even with the Caps' offensive stars having an off night just like the Pens' Marc Andre Fleury's off night on Thursday, the Rangers could not beat them. And the overall depth of talent on these teams is what separates the wheat from the chaff in the NHL.

---The Graying Mantis

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