Rangers, Capitals playing it safe

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist makes a save against the Capitals behind a scramble in his...

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist makes a save against the Capitals behind a scramble in his crease during Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference semifinal series at Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y., May 7, 2012. (GARY HERSHORN/Reuters)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:12 AM ET

NEW YORK - Karl Alzner bent over towards his equipment bag, pulled out something that looked like a large plastic shield and waved it for everyone to see.

This was his answer to the question: “Are you sore?”

As in, how have the Washington Capitals defence managed to block so many shots in this hold-your-breath, hold-your-nose, second-round NHL playoff series with the New York Rangers?

“I’ve got this,” said Alzner, the impressive Washington defenceman, playing show and tell. “When you’ve got this, you don’t feel much.”

There were no visible bruises on his legs and none on any of his teammates, but there has been a certain numbness to this series between the Capitals and Rangers, and blocked shots is just one reason for it. In some ways, this series has been ping-pong on ice. It has been back, forth and back again. A bounce here. A bounce there. And the occasional turnover.

Impressive it has been. Compelling it hasn’t been. John Tortorella, who once preached the philosophy that safe is death, has coached his Rangers to a way too safe approach against the Caps. And if Caps coach coach Dale Hunter had his way, the tie game wouldn’t just be back in the NHL, but Washington would probably play 82 games and tie each of them.

But back to Alzner and the Caps defence. As great and successful as rookie goalie Braden Holtby has been for Washington in these playoffs, the Caps’ plastic-enhanced defence has been almost as sterling.

Through two periods Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Holtby stopped 25 shots. The men in front of him blocked 17. Henrik Lundqvist, in goal for the Rangers, had stopped nine.

When Caps defenceman John Carlson scored on the power play -- off a play which began with a blocked shot that didn’t go the Rangers’ way -- it was the kind of play that could have put Washington in a position to go home Wednesday night with the chance to eliminate a No. 1 seed. Leads in this series have been like gold. They just haven’t lasted very long. And this one didn’t.

There is that little to choose from between these teams, stylistically and otherwise. Carlson scored in Game 5. So did the wayward Rangers defenceman Anton Stralman. What’s just as interesting is who didn’t score: Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin and New York's Marian Gaborik.

This should be a time of year for stars, when the Mark Messiers and Wayne Gretzkys come out to play. There just aren’t any on these teams. Not the kind of players who change games -- unless they’re blocking shots in goal or on defence.

This isn’t really a best-of-seven semifinal series for the Eastern Conference, although it is. This is the shot blockers Hall of Fame. Every defenceman is starting to resemble Craig Ludwig. Getting shots through to the net is almost as difficult as getting through the neutral zone with any kind of speed. Somehow, this series has transformed plastic into some kind of piece of hockey perfection.

And the Rangers would probably block more shots if the Capitals didn’t play rope-a-dope and try and take the raucous crowd out of the game. By the time Game 5 was 52 minutes old, Lundqvist had stopped 14 shots, the Capitals players, forwards and defence, had stopped 19 and Washington clung to a lead it couldn’t hold through the final minute of regulation play.

It has been that close a series with the scores more compelling than the play itself. Neither Tortorella nor Hunter, frankly, cares who he excites. They are like all coaches -- pragmatic about winning. Whatever it takes, they’ll do.

Washington came back to beat the Boston Bruins in Round 1. The Rangers came back to beat the Ottawa Senators. This hold-your-breath and hope hockey series continues, without the wind tipping in any way.

There can be no favourites in this series anymore. There are only survivors.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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