Entering their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, much attention was paid to the Capitals' power play and rightfully so. Their 26.8 percent power play led the NHL this season and was the highest season-ending percentage in nearly 25 years.
Yet not much focus was placed on the unit tasked with neutralizing that potent power play. The Rangers' penalty kill finished the season directly in the middle of the league (15th) at 81.1 percent but thwarted four of the Capitals' five power play opportunities during the latter's 3-1 Game 1 victory Thursday.
New York's penalty kill, as one would expect considering its style of play under Coach John Tortorella, is uniquely aggressive, predicated on doggedly pursuing and pressuring the puck carrier in an attempt to force turnovers instead of simply trying to keep passes on the outside.
"There's only a select few teams that do that," forward Troy Brouwer said Friday. "They pressure hard, they're desperate, they block shots as you can see them diving all over the middle of the ice. It's part of their plan. They try to neutralize our PP and they did for the first three PPs we had last night. It's a different look that we're not used to seeing game in and game out."
The Rangers only had one shorthanded shot on goal Thursday, but the sequence that led to it is a prime example of their penalty-killing ethos.
Washington did itself no favors with poor zone entries during its early power play opportunities, but New York exacerbated the problem. Forward Darrell Powe and defenseman Anton Stralman closed in on forward Mike Ribeiro along the boards just inside the blue line. The puck came to forward Nicklas Backstrom, who then sent a careless pass in the direction of defenseman Mike Green.
Forward Carl Hagelin was waiting in the passing lane to intercept the puck and race down the ice for an uncontested breakaway. Goaltender Braden Holtby was there to make the save, but such a mistake could prove costly against an opportunistic team like the Rangers.
“Especially when we enter the zone,” Backstrom said. “You’ve got to be aware of it because when they got the puck they’re going for the goals. That’s something we talked about and we’ve got to make sure we take care of the puck a little bit better.”
As for a solution, every strength has a weakness, and the Rangers' aggressiveness -- particularly when it comes to blocking shots -- is something that can be exploited. The Rangers have a tendency to go all in on getting in the way of shots, but doing so makes it nearly impossible for them to recover and defend the next play.
Overcommitting to the puck handler will also leave somebody open, and quick passes (not necessarily the Capitals' forte) will provide such chances.
The Capitals realize all of that and understand that patience will certainly be a virtue on the power play.
“I think when they block shots and go down, you need to be more patient with it and fake a few times,” Ribeiro said. “Obviously you want to fake them out. Teams that go down, a lot of times you get out of your position being down on the ice. Just keep your head up and find the open man after that.”
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