The result of Wednesday's Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the Rangers and Capitals will swing momentum decidedly in the favor of one of the two teams. Either the Rangers will pull even with the Capitals at two wins apiece and turn this best-of-seven series into a best-of-three after having having won straight games, or a Rangers loss Wednesday will give the Caps three chances to close out the Blueshirts season---two of which would be played on Washington's home ice.
To this point the home team has won all three games in the series, after the Rangers skated a nail-biting 4-3 victory Monday night in Game Three at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts would like that trend to continue this evening, but finally change when the two teams head back to D.C for Game Five on Friday. With a 16-6-2 home ice record this season, and a gritty one-goal win in their lone playoff game so far, the Rangers will enter Wednesday's contest with confidence.
The Blueshirts will also enter play Wednesday knowing that Caps goalie Braden Holtby is vulnerable and will surrender goals if the appropriate pressure is applied. Holtby had allowed just one goal in the first two games of this series, and was coming off his first career post-season shutout before the Rangers blitzed him for four goals in Game Three---with three of those goals coming as a direct result of the Rangers going hard to the net and scoring from in close. Brian Boyle, Arron Asham and Derek Stepan all scored in this fashion, proving that the Rangers stated goal heading into the game was the right approach.
With Derick Brassard also scoring a goal on Monday---and finishing the night with a game-high three points---the Rangers got offensive production from up and down their lineup, with Boyle standing out so much with his strong play that he was elevated off of the fourth line and ended up playing more than 21 effective minutes, including time on the power play. It was an impressive display of four lines playing a physical brand of hockey, creating havoc on the forecheck, and doing a better job of possessing the puck than they had the first two games of the series. And though the power play scored just once in six opportunities, the Rangers puck movement and subsequent scoring chances were a major improvement over the first seven failed power plays in this series.
It is looking more and more like rugged winger Ryane Clowe will return to the lineup in Game Four as he took part in contact drills and battle drills during Tuesday's practice. With a spot likely open in the lineup---winger Darroll Powe was hurt in the first period Monday and did not practice Tuesday---it seems that there is a clear path for Clowe's return. Clowe would provide another big body to play the physical brand of hockey the Rangers prefer, as well as add a proven veteran playoff performer and scorer to the lineup should he play. His return from injury would be the fourth important Blueshirt to bolster the lineup in this series---following Boyle and Derek Dorsett in Game Two, and Marc Staal in Game Three.
The Capitals might have an injury question to answer as well on Wednesday. Rugged defenseman John Erskine was banged around by Ryan Callahan in Game Three and was reportedly sore after missing part of the game on Monday---though he did return and finish the game. Word out of Caps camp on Tuesday was that Erskine likely would play on Game Four, but should he be compromised, the Rangers would most definitely benefit.
Washington has not lost back-to-back games in two months, not since a three-game losing skid from March 9-12. Despite their loss Monday, the Capitals are 17-3-2 over their last 22 games and remain an extremely confident team. They are a far cry from the team which began the 2013 campaign with a 2-8-1 record, struggling to offensively and in keeping pucks out of their own net. However the Rangers believe that another loss in Game Four would shake some of that confidence the Caps have and make for an intriguing finish to this series.
After a fairly quiet---and pointless---Game Three Alex Ovechkin will be looked to for energy, leaderhsip, and offense in Game Four; while Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green---who both scored on Monday---will look to follow up strong performances from the previous contest with more of the same on Wednesday.
Special teams will be hugely important again on Wednesday. The team that has won the special teams battle has won all three games in this series, so far. To that end Washington will want to be much more disciplined in their play. The Capitals were shorthanded six times on Monday, the most penalty kills they had had since March 7th.
Interestingly this series is following the blueprint of the one these two teams played in the playoffs two years ago when Washington won the first two games at home before the Rangers responded with a Game Three victory. Of course no Rangers fan could forget what happened in Game Four in 2011 when the Blueshirts skated to a 3-0 lead before the Capitals roared back to tie the game and then win it in the second overtime period. The Caps then finished off the series in five games.
Will the Rangers even up this series on Wednesday? Share your predictions below.