WASHINGTON -- Amid the excitement and nerves of Game 1 Thursday night, Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello hopped over the boards prematurely and incurred a bench minor for too many men on the ice just 34 seconds into play.
It was a simple mistake, easily chalked up to some playoff jitters, and it didn’t end up hurting the Rangers. But it was a harbinger of things to come, as the Blueshirts took five more penalties in their 3-1 loss to the Capitals.
"I think the biggest thing we learned is that we have to stay disciplined,” Rick Nash said after practice Friday. “We can’t let them have six power plays.”
The Capitals actually had just five power plays, but they tallied on their fourth with fourth-liner Arron Asham in the box for an illegal check to the head.
Alex Ovechkin capitalized on Mike Green’s shot that caromed off the kick-boards to tie the score at 1-all in the second period, a surge that sparked a run of three unanswered goals for the Capitals.
Those two, Ovechkin and Green, combine as a fearsome tandem on the Capitals’ top-ranked power play, which entered the postseason with a staggering 26.8 percent success rate.
“They’re good players. You have to give 'em credit,” coach John Tortorella said. “I thought we did a lot of good things killing penalties, but things like that are going to happen when good players are on the ice and you’re down a man so many times. You can’t do that. We will not win games if we are there.”
The Rangers’ penalty-killing unit was aggressive in stifling the Caps on their first three man-up efforts, but New York was playing with fire as it went down a man at 6:26 of the second.
“You can’t just continue to let them get momentum,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “The first couple ones, we were able to be effective, but you give them the fourth and fifth one and they get comfortable out there and make adjustments. It’s going to be tough to stop them that many times.”
So, you can guarantee that will be a point of emphasis moving forward as the Rangers look to avoid a 2-0 hole before the series shifts back to New York.
In fact, it was a point of emphasis heading into the series.
“We’ve been talking about it,” alternate captain Brad Richards said. “Starting too many men, that’s just [being] amped up, and I know [Asham] is just being physical [on the fourth penalty]. Can you tell him not to hit that guy? I don’t think it’s that’s bad of a play. There’s two [penalties]. Some of them are penalties, some of them aren’t and that’s just the way hockey goes, but we’re definitely gonna focus on it. Sometimes, things just happen.”
Regardless, Thursday’s game reinforced that special teams will be a critical factor in the series. The Capitals converted on the power play, but the Rangers failed to cash in on 56 seconds of 5-on-3 time in the second, only to surrender two quick goals shortly afterward.
Nash said those swings “definitely proved” the importance of special-teams play in the matchup between the two teams.
“We gotta be better,” said Nash, who was held off the score sheet despite attempting 16 shots. “We gotta get more shots and, once we do get the opportunities on the power play, we’ve got to make sure we bear down and beat their goaltender.”