By Jay Greenberg,
It is so hard for the both Rangers and Capitals to see through all those bodies blocking the puck's path to the net that if the teams switched uniforms for Game 5 Monday night, they might be able to pull the wool over the eyes of their fans.
But it's best-of-three now. So in the looking glass Michael Del Zotto sees a window of opportunity, not a mirror.
"No, we're a completely different team," insisted the Rangers' defenceman. "The [Caps] defend hard but we are a very unique team.
"There is not another team that comes at you as hard as we do. That's the staple of our team."
The most consistent night-in, night-out effort, not the greatest talent, earned the Rangers the Eastern Conference title by one point over Pittsburgh and home ice advantage in the post-season by 17 points over Ottawa and Washington.
Yet, to no one's huge surprise, New York needed seven games to get by the eighth-seeded Senators by just one goal and now the Rangers are 2-2 with Washington.
The only thing more consistent than the hard work of a regular-season conference leader over the course of an 82-game season is the year-in, year-out certainly that effort will be matched once the post-season begins. This was often the case even before the salary cap brought blanketing parity to the NHL and is ever more true today.
This Ranger series doesn't have the bare knuckles of the last one. But there is no reason to believe it won't continue to be white knuckles to the end.
"If you are one of the eight teams playing in your conference, you are a good hockey club," said John Tortorella. "We didn't expect anything different, that's just the way it is."
"We are going to continue to go about our business."
Instead of, as usual, telling us what is none of anybody's business, the coach even discussed some of that business Sunday.
"There were some struggles away from the puck for him, Tortorella said about his third-period benching of rookie Chris Kreider, who gave the puck away to Alex Ovechkin on the game's first goal. "Sometimes it's good to watch."
Sometimes this series is hard to watch, for lack of offensive opportunities. The margin is five goals in four games. For Washington against Boston, it was seven in seven games, so despite the Caps' inability to buy a goal, they continue to buy into the plan.
In fact, a penny for Brooks Laich's thoughts on the matter Sunday brought out the first real anger showed by either team in the series.
"We were supposed to be taking a page from the Bruins, but we blocked more shots and played tighter defensive hockey than one of the best defensive team in the league," the Caps' centre said after practice.
"We are giving up 15- 18 shots a game and everybody says that's the Rangers' identity. I'm sick of hearing that. We have great defensive players on this team. Sometimes our defensive efforts are overlooked."
The Caps had 26 blocks in their 3-2 Game 4 win, suggesting that New York's next looks should overlook the net.
"At times we're getting the puck past that first layer but they do a good job of having their centres fill in the middle of the ice and their D are fronting shots," said Del Zotto, the Rangers' primary blue-line catalyst. "It's the second and third layers that are toughest to get by.
"Sometimes not getting it to the net, just getting it down low, will help us get some chances."
No chance that Alex Ovechkin, who left his feet to hit Dan Girardi in open ice during Game 4, will be suspended for Game 5, so the Caps still will have the services of the series' one true game-breaker.
Marian Gaborik is the Rangers' most skilled offensive player. More a finisher than a creator, however, he has been seen on the bench pointedly hearing from Tortorella about making more happen, never mind goals in the last two games.
Meanwhile Brad Richards, who was good in Game 3, was not in Game 4.
"We've got to do more," said Richards. "It's hard sometimes because you might have zone time, think you're doing a lot because you are getting pucks, but you break it down and look back, you needed to try to beat a guy and get an extra step to the net.
"If you were getting 25 chances and 40 shots a night, maybe you start getting frustrated, but I don't think we have done that. I don't think [Caps goalie Braden Holtby] extends too often. So we have to get more out of it."
In this series, just one more opportunity ultimately will be the difference. But against this kind of stifling checking, it takes more than good work, but good fortune.
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