Spend enough time around hockey -- either inside the locker room or simply watching pre- and post-game press conferences -- and you're bound to be inundated by worn and tired clichés, none more prevalent than the concept of "playing a full 60 minutes." As if a team would leave the playing surface en masse midway through the second period.
But the Capitals actually didn't play a full 60 minutes in their 4-3 loss to the Rangers Wednesday in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. They didn't even play an entire period.
"We didn't play good," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We played bad for 45 minutes, and that's not fun either."
One day after Coach Adam Oates gave his team an unexpected day off to utilize "rest as a weapon," that weapon backfired. The& Capitals appeared sluggish from the start, while the Rangers ratcheted up the intensity from the opening faceoff with their relentless forecheck and physicality unseen through the first three games.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, the Capitals were thoroughly dominated at even-strength.
They couldn't muster any clean breakouts; they couldn't handle the puck; they couldn't get shots through to Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. By the time Rangers forward Carl Hagelin beat goaltender Braden Holtby -- whose errant clearing attempt in the first period led to the Rangers' first goal -- with a slap shot from the left circle with just less than 10 minutes left in the second period, the Capitals had only eight shots on goal, five of which were at even strength.
"We’ve got to find ways to get shots early in the game," forward Troy Brouwer said. "I looked up three quarters of the way through the second period and we only had nine shots. We’ve got to find ways to get in lanes, generate more opportunities and create good clean breakouts right now because we’re getting slowed down in our own end, and we weren’t in Game 1 and 2 and that’s where we had success."
Despite only playing up to New York's level for a short time, Washington almost got away with it.
Once forward Mathieu Perreault pushed forward Joel Ward's rebound past Lundqvist less than three minutes after Hagelin's goal, the Capitals picked up steam as the Rangers began playing the tentative hockey that put them in a 0-2 series hole in the first place.
Brouwer's backhanded goal with 17.1 seconds left lifted the Capitals into a 2-2 tie at the second intermission, but their newfound momentum did not last long.
A power play goal by defenseman Dan Girardi just 59 seconds into the third period and forward Derek Stepan's eventual game-winner -- which epitomized the Capitals' aforementioned struggles -- restored the Rangers' two-goal lead. Perreault's second goal cut the Capitals' deficit to 4-3, but they did not manage to get any closer.
There was little to no resemblance between the Capitals that won Games 1 and 2 at Verizon Center and lost Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden. The Capitals will literally return home for a pivotal Game 5 Friday, but also hope to do so figuratively: They only allowed one goal in 128 minutes in Washington after allowing eight goals in 120 in New York.
The Capitals have never won a playoff series in which they led 2-1 and lost Game 4, having been eliminated six times. As Holtby put it Wednesday, the best-of-seven has become a best-of-three.
The message is clear: Be better or be gone.
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