— Almost no one expected the Washington Capitals to sweep the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. After all, only 14 points separated the rivals in the standings, and the Rangers handed the Capitals their two ugliest losses of the regular season.
Still, there's something unsettling about the Capitals' grasp on this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, which, after Sunday's 3-2 loss, appears tenuous at two games to one. They've been outplayed in four straight periods, outshot the past two games and, counting goals scored in regulation, have five to the Rangers' four.
One doesn't need to be a pessimist to see troubling parallels between what's happened over the past 80 minutes and what transpired last April, when Washington let a 3-1 series lead slip away and fell to Montreal in Game 7.
In Game 3, the Capitals were too undisciplined, some of their stars made too little of an impact given the stakes and, despite all the pre-playoff talk about crashing the net, they're still generating too little traffic in front Henrik Lundqvist, a deficiency underscored by the Rangers' running roughshod through Michal Neuvirth's crease.
All of these shortcomings are something the Capitals can control. But it's important that they address them now.
It begins with the penalties. The eight infractions were the most they've taken in the past 21 postseason games, four times as many as they were assessed in either Game 1 or 2, and the second-most they've taken all season. The referees have consistently called hooking penalties when a player puts his stick on an opponent's gloves, yet both Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin did it anyway. John Carlson was whistled for cross-checking and roughing minors, the latter setting up the game-deciding four-on-four.
"We have to try to be controlled," said defenseman Scott Hannan, whose holding minor was one of the team's four penalties in the second period. "We want to come out and have emotion, but we want to use it in the right way. We have to be physical, play hard and stay out of the box."
The Rangers converted only one of their seven power plays, but the penalties prevented coach Bruce Boudreau from rolling four lines as he did so effectively the first two games. Third-line center Brooks Laich, for example, played almost six minutes more than Alexander Semin and seven more than Jason Arnott, both potential game-breakers.
"It definitely disrupts the rhythm and prevents some people from getting into the game as much as they normally do," Boyd Gordon said.
Laich added: "You end up taking penalties when you're getting outworked, and I think there were some points in the game when that was happening."
The penalties certainly disrupted the Capitals' flow, but it doesn't change the fact that they must get more production from their stars.
Ovechkin had a goal and an assist Sunday, but he could have been better. His hooking penalty was unnecessary, his defensive execution on Brandon Dubinsky's winner with 1:39 remaining was sloppy, and his goal came on his only shot on net, a tip-in. Game 3, in fact, marked only the third time in 31 playoff games that Ovechkin was held to a single shot on goal.
Ovechkin's "play without the puck wasn't as good as it's been in the last 30" games, Boudreau said before implying that Capitals' captain may be trying to shoulder too much of the load.
Nicklas Backstrom has one assist in three games. That, after going without a point in the final three games of the Montreal series last spring.
Semin, meantime, has been conspicuously absent from the score sheet since a dominant performance in Game 1. Of the winger's six shots Sunday, two came from inside 12 feet; the others were from 25, 39, 46 and 74 feet.
"They're doing a pretty good job of checking them, but I mean, you never, ever win anything without your best players being your best players," Boudreau said. "I think they're working pretty hard, but they're doing a good job of nullifying them. Somehow we have to find a way."
One surefire way the Capitals' stars can get themselves going is by going to the net with more consistency. Ovechkin scored his goal from seven feet out, redirecting a pass from Arnott past Lundqvist, and Mike Knuble flipped in a rebound on the power play. But too often they loiter outside of the high-traffic areas.
"You have to do things sometimes that are out of character," Boudreau added. "Sometimes guys don't like driving to the net, but to win, you have to drive to the net — it's as simple as that."
The lack of traffic in the Rangers' crease might not have been so noticeable had New York not spent so much time disrupting Neuvirth, who was harassed by Erik Christensen, Vinny Prospal, Brandon Prust and Sean Avery. On Prospal's third-period goal, Marian Gaborik's proximity to Neuvirth prevented the Capitals' rookie from trapping the initial shot against his chest protector.
"They executed their game plan," Hannan said. "They wanted to come in and get in front of our goalie. We have to handle that better, box out and match their physical play in our end."
The mood at the team's Arlington, Va., practice facility was businesslike Monday. High-minute players stayed off the ice and those who spoke to reporters did so in calm, measured tones.
But it was still impossible to escape the feeling that the Capitals are at a crossroads in their postseason journey.
Wednesday's Game 4 "is really going to swing the series," Laich said. "We could take a stranglehold on it, or it could be a very long series."