By Jay Greenberg in New York
Six games between the Capitals and Rangers have told us that goalie Henrik Lundqvist is vulnerable high to the glove side as long as Alexander Ovechkin, who has one of the hardest, heaviest shots in the game, is doing the shooting.
Down low, Lundqvist's pads have been even faster than John Tortorella to anger, one of the reasons the Rangers are alive and kicking.
Meanwhile, at the other end, they needed everybody at the net including Mark Messier and Rod Gilbert to poke one by Capitals goalie Braden Holtby on a 6-on-4 to tie Game 5 with 6.6 seconds to go. For their last two goals the Rangers have required a double-carom shot in overtime and a drive off defenceman John Carlson's hip.
So if something has to give in Game 7 Saturday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden, it is not likely a goalie.
Except for one goal in Game 2 caused by a puck-handling error behind the net, Lundqvist hasn't let in a clunker in the series. And after looking average in Game 1, the only bad boy Holtby has surrendered was a partially-screened wide-angle drive by defenceman Anton Stralman that beat the kid through the legs early in Game 5.
Being from New York, the Rangers know there is no such thing as too much traffic. So they keep going to the net, but Holtby's ability to track the puck and his rebound control have been virtually flawless, just like Lundqvist's.
So you can flip a coin between these two for Game 7 and it probably would land on the goal-line on its side, before being quickly covered to force a faceoff, of course.
Holtby is the third Capitals goaltending prodigy in three playoffs, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth being good enough only to get them a round before faltering and then failing to follow up with any regular-season consistency.
Adding to the frustration this season was the mediocrity of veteran free-agent signing Tomas Vokoun, before Washington rolled the dice on a fourth-round draft pick who had been stopping everything in Hershey.
Holtby got the Caps in the playoffs on the next-to-last game, got them past defending Stanley Cup champion Boston in seven one-goal games and has failed to lose back-to-back contests.
The Capitals structure has been impressive, but the pilings are laid in concrete goaltending. When a team can go about its business without the fear of a bad goal, business generally is good. Calm radiates outward.
"I've loved that kid since they first called him up," said teammate Matt Hendricks. "He's a warrior.
"Even in practice, he doesn't like rebounds in the back of the net."
Lundqvist once fought the same battles in practices, a practice that became self-defeating on top of 70-plus game workloads. His astonishing 2010 shootout loss to journeyman Brian Boucher that denied the Rangers a playoff berth in Game No. 82 was in Game No. 73 for Lundqvist. Afterwards, he admitted to fatigue.
He says the addition of a reliable veteran backup, Martin Biron, the last two years has allowed more practice time to work on technique. The development of a young Ranger team has enabled Lundqvist to worry about his own job first. Plus, he is 30 years old and has learned how to leave the last goal at the arena.
"I have found a better balance in my life over the last couple of years," Lundqvist told the New York Post's Larry Brooks after three-overtime win in Game Three. "Even this year, over the regular season I could feel the difference in the way I was able to put the game out of mind on the off-days.
"I'm a pretty intense guy when it comes to preparation and with the amount of mental energy that goes into playing, I need to be able to have a different approach away from the rink and that took some time for me. It's me maturing in my life as much as my career, as a person I'm more relaxed."
Lundqvist probably will be the league MVP this season, deservedly. He also has played more than well enough in this series to already deserve to be in a next one, but a Washington franchise that already has denied him getting out of the first round twice, has come up with a kid matching King Henrik save-for-save.
The Rangers haven't been to a conference final since 1997, Caps since 1998. Yet both are playing like they are accustomed to success and what makes this Game 7 so fascinating is that both teams look impossible to kill. With goaltending like this in both nets, the last two-carom shot wins, painfully.Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg.
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