Capitals can’t solve Rangers’ power play, dig themselves a 2-0 hole

NEW YORK — The Washington Capitals, who thrived through adversity just to make these Stanley Cup playoffs, have their backs against the wall again.

After dropping Game 1 of their first-round series against the New York Rangers on Sunday, the Capitals followed up with a 4-3 loss Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, sending them back to Washington having to win four of the next five games to keep their season alive.

Game 3 is Friday night at Capital One Arena.

Winger Tom Wilson got the Capitals within a goal at 11:45 of the third period, but Washington’s comeback rally fell short down the stretch. The Capitals had not previously lost two road games to open a playoff series in the Alex Ovechkin era.

Goaltender Charlie Lindgren made 23 saves on 27 shots; Igor Shesterkin stopped 23 of 26 for the Rangers.

“Overall, much better than the first game. Did a ton of really, really good things, so that’s the positive,” Capitals Coach Spencer Carbery said. “Offensively, way better. Speed through the neutral zone, way better. [Offensive] zone time, sustained pressure, some different looks off that. … Now, we make four or five, probably even a few more, [mistakes] that we just can’t make this time of year.”

The Capitals started strong after being displeased with their effort in Game 1. Washington was the better, faster, more cohesive team through the first five-plus minutes, and the Capitals were rewarded for their efforts with a goal from center Connor McMichael, giving them their first lead of the series at 5:09.

But Stanley Cup playoff games last longer than five minutes, and the Capitals’ hot start quickly faltered. Vincent Trocheck tied the game on a deflection over Lindgren’s shoulder less than three minutes later, and the Rangers took the lead with under six minutes left in the frame on a power-play tally by Mika Zibanejad.

“One of the top priorities is to keep the series at five-on-five as much as we can,” Carbery said before the series began. The Rangers finished the regular season with the third-ranked power play and penalty kill in the league, giving New York a significant statistical advantage on the Capitals in both categories.

After eight penalties were called in Game 1 — not including the three 10-minute misconducts handed out in the final moments — the traffic to the penalty box was even busier in Game 2. Eleven total penalties were called, six on the Capitals, and the special teams battle went in favor of the Rangers, who scored twice on the power play and added a shorthanded goal.

Washington came up empty on four power-play opportunities in Game 1, so scoring twice on the power play in Game 2 was a clear sign of progress, but the Capitals inability to stay out of the penalty box was a significant limiting factor for the Capitals’ chances.

Center Dylan Strome drew the Capitals even with a power-play tally at 4:14 of the second period. Washington was the better team at five-on-five during the middle frame, but the Capitals couldn’t stay out of the penalty box long enough to take advantage of the momentum.

“They’re calling a lot,” Strome said. “I guess that’s what they’re going with this playoffs. We’ve got to be aware of that and be careful with our sticks.”

At 12:26 of the second, Jack Roslovic gave New York the lead back with a snipe into a small window over Lindgren in the waning seconds of a penalty to defenseman John Carlson for cross-checking Trocheck.

The Capitals went back on the power play with just over four minutes left in the frame, after New York defenseman Erik Gustafsson put the puck over the glass from his defensive zone, but Washington’s emerging power-play issues again proved to be a concern.

A turnover by Ovechkin in the neutral zone gave the Rangers a dangerous shorthanded rush, and K’Andre Miller capitalized on a tic-tac-toe passing sequence with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider to put New York ahead by two before the period was over.

“The play, [Ovechkin] gets a puck cross-ice and he’s getting pressure right away, so he just all of sudden is surprised,” Carbery said. “Then he bobbles it and turns it over.”

Early in the third period, a hit by Artemi Panarin on winger T.J. Oshie was reviewed for a major penalty, but the result was a penalty to McMichael for roughing, jumping in to defend Oshie after the hit, and no penalty to Panarin. Oshie was pulled by the concussion spotter for evaluation but returned to the game.

“They said it wasn’t a minor penalty, was the only explanation I got,” Carbery said. “I asked a few follow-up questions with regards to leaving feet, point of contact — and the one that is tricky is the spotter removes him. … To me, when the spotters remove him, there has to be some type of contact with the head. That’s where I was a little bit confused, him being removed by the spotters and then no minor penalty on the ice.”

The Capitals killed McMichael’s penalty but quickly found themselves back on the penalty kill after center Nic Dowd was sent off for roughing Jimmy Vesey. Dowd’s penalty was cut short when the Rangers were whistled for too many men. On the ensuing power play, Wilson tipped home a point shot from center Hendrix Lapierre to bring the Capitals within one with just over eight minutes left.

With 2:48 left, Washington pulled Lindgren for an extra attacker ahead of an offensive zone faceoff. Strome won the draw and Ovechkin fired a quick-trigger shot that was blocked, but the Capitals were able to reset possession and keep pressuring the Rangers.

New York had only a couple of looks at the empty net amid what became a lengthy offensive zone shift for Washington, but the Capitals couldn’t translate their pressure into an equalizer. Despite feeling better about their game as a whole than they did after the opener, the result was the same, and Washington heads home for a must-win Game 3 on Friday.

“I feel like we fought back well,” Strome said. “We bounced back. I feel like we’re right in the series. Obviously, they’ve got to come to our rink now, and we’ve got to find a way to win one here at some point.”

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