Rangers keys vs Caps: protect net, contain Ovechkin

Notice that Joel Ward is by himself in front of the Rangers' net. This happens a bit too often.
Notice that Joel Ward is by himself in front of the Rangers’ net. This happens a bit too often.

by Paul West

Yesterday’s game one loss, virtually at the buzzer, was one of the more painful and heartbreaking losses I’ve seen in thirty years of watching the team. There were many mitigating circumstances: the arguably illegal and verifiably dangerous hit on Dan Boyle which freed Alex Ovechkin to skate off with the puck; Boyle slumping to the ice after said hit, which many of his teammates admitted momentarily (and understandably) distracted him; the fact that Ovechkin’s pass was, indeed, incredibly accurate and well-timed for the game circumstance and the angle from which he sent it from behind the net to Joel Ward for the winning shot; the fact that, to be perfectly honest, 99 percent of onlookers and probably players had begun mentally preparing for overtime. This last element is far less mitigating, as playing whistle to whistle and taking nothing for granted is an imperative part of sports, especially at such a high level of competition. Still, all things considered, it’s not the worst aspect of how the Rangers surrendered the buzzer-beating heartbreaker.

Ward’s buzzer-beater encapsulated two issues the Rangers need to address if they’ll beat the Capitals and advance: failure to consistently protect the front of their net, and failure to contain Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin is one of the game’s most dangerous and dynamic scorers, whose wrist shot might be one of the best of all time. He’s also mercurial and emotional as a player, which can make him very streaky and has accounted for postseason struggles in the past. After scoring the Caps’ first goal last night, Ovie reportedly skated past Henrik Lundqvist and yelled, “all series;” if he gets confident and goes on a hot streak, he can win games by himself. This would be very bad for business. On the other hand, when he gets stressed out, upset or in a funk, Ovechkin can be made to play surprisingly small. The Rangers need to contain him, outmaneuver him, keep him away from the puck, and engender in him the kind of frustration that’s made many question his mental toughness at times. Otherwise, his trash talk might prove prophetic, and the reigning regular season champions might not make it as far as they did last season.

As for Joel Ward, his final shot wasn’t the only time he found himself virtually alone in front of Henrik. Earlier in the game, Ward fired a one-timer from practically inside the crease, but it clanked off the right post. Ward is a tough, savvy player who likes to camp out in front of the net; the Rangers have, over the course of the season, often failed to protect their goaltenders. This is a bad mix. The Rangers’ defensive ranking is due to their strong defensive corps, and they can, indeed, protect leads and defend their zone. But as I’ve noted previously, they’re also an aggressive transition team that can get in trouble when their outlet passes get picked off or when they get caught out of position in their own end. Having two top-notch goalies behind them has increased their margin of error in this regard, but snipers like Ovechkin are more likely to make them pay for lapses in their end and players like Ward are going to have a field day if allowed to hang out next to our crease.

The Rangers need not resort to bullying tactics to protect the front of their net; they simply have to maintain spatial discipline, and be cognizant of when the Caps’ net-crashers are on the ice. And they have to do a better job of bringing out the version of Ovechkin that’s had people question his playoff mettle. The Rangers are still the best team in the NHL, and they still have the makings of a team that can stay dominant for quite a long time. But if they don’t tighten up in these two key areas, they will be left wondering what might have been.

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