NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers will tell you that they are playing well right now, and they're not lying. But so far, playing well isn't good enough as they stare down an ominous 3-1 series deficit heading into Friday's Game 5 at Madison Square Garden against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals. After a stunning run to the Stanley Cup finals last spring, the Blueshirts are perilously close to making an unexpected early exit from the playoffs after capturing the Presidents' Trophy during the regular season. True enough that the Rangers have dug themselves out of a hole like this before, just one year ago when they fell behind 3-1 in their second-round set against the Pittsburgh Penguins and rallied to rattle off three straight wins. But this is not last season.
Here are five reasons why the Rangers should be worried:
1. Goaltending -- Plenty of people believed that with little separating these two clubs, goaltending would be the difference in this series. And it has been -- just not in the way most anticipated. While the edge was given to former Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist heading into the series, Washington's Braden Holtby has been simply sublime in stifling the Rangers' offense, limiting New York to only five goals over four games. The 25-year-old has done nothing but shine in the postseason, where he has posted a 1.48 goals-against average and .950 save percentage; in this series he has a 1.26 goals-against average and .960 save percentage in this series. The Rangers really don't seem to have an answer for Holtby. His glove has been terrific, he's tracking pucks and his defense has been superb in collapsing in front of him down low.
"To their credit, he's made a lot of good saves and they've done a good job getting in shooting lanes," veteran center Dominic Moore said Thursday on a conference call. "The Capitals deserve a lot of credit for the way they're playing, their [defensive] corps and Holtby."
Lundqvist has been no slouch (1.64 goals-against average, .939 save percentage) but Holtby has given the Capitals a steadiness in the crease that has allowed Washington to remain confident in the type of one-goal games that have become this series' calling card.
One NHL goaltending coach described Holtby's play as "rock solid."
"Looks like he's playing with swagger," the coach told ESPN.com. "Patient, reading plays well, coming up with the timely saves."
The Rangers are used to "The King" giving them the undeniable edge between the pipes, but that just has not been the case this series.
2. Struggling stars -- While Holtby deserves his fair share of credit, the Rangers' top players also need to be accountable for their lack of production. First-line center Derick Brassard has done his fair share of the heavy lifting, with five goals this postseason, but no one else on the team has more than two. That includes star winger Rick Nash, who has only five goals in 46 playoff games as a Ranger and just a single tally this spring; and veteran forward Martin St. Louis, who has yet to score a goal in nine games this postseason. Both Nash and St. Louis have made key contributions in other areas -- just take a look at the terrific execution on the sequence leading up to Brassard's goal in Game 4 as an example -- but that's not enough. Both players get paid the big bucks to score goals when it matters most, and that time is clearly now. For the most part, the Capitals have been really shrewd in clogging up the neutral zone to limit the Rangers' transition game, keeping the Rangers' top offensive threats to the outside and playing a compact game down low while taking away shooting lanes. It's time for New York to crash the net and battle for the dirty areas of the ice.
Waiting for clean looks or trying to force a perfect play is not the right approach.
Said team captain Ryan McDonagh: "It doesn't seem like there are going to be many pretty goals going forward here."
3. Faceoff fumbles -- For as evenly matched as these two teams have been, the faceoff circle has been one area where the Capitals have gained a distinct advantage. Washington leads all playoff teams with a 55.9 percent success rate from the dot, compared to the Rangers, who rank 15th out of the 16 playoff teams at 45 percent. The difference has been stark at times, particularly in Game 3 when the Capitals went 69 percent from the faceoff circle with veteran forwards Jay Beagle (10-for-12), Nicklas Backstrom (15-for-20) and Brooks Laich (5-for-7) all dominating from the dot. Moore, who only recently was given a top-six assignment, is the only one of the team's four regular centermen who has an average above 50 percent; Moore's average is at 53.4 percent compared to Brassard's 47.3 percent, Derek Stepan's 43.6 percent and rookie Kevin Hayes' 33.3 percent, though the latter has recently shifted to the wing.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault acknowledged this was an area of concern.
"I would say to you, in this series, that's one area that there's no doubt they have been a lot better than we have," he said Thursday.
4. Power outage -- And of course, the Rangers power play isn't helping matters. Does this sound familiar? The long-maligned unit has been a problem area again for New York, and it's not a huge shocker considering how good of a penalty kill they are facing in the Capitals' stingy special-teams unit. The Caps have surrendered only one power-play goal this postseason, killing off 22 of 23 attempts faced through 11 games this postseason. The Rangers have gone through spurts of getting some good looks, but they have failed to find the back of the net, managing only four goals on 21 attempts. True, this area is not historically a back-breaker, as at least a few championship teams have hoisted the Cup despite woeful performances on the man advantage, but the Rangers are not making up for the unit's ineptitude in other areas of the ice.
5. Matchup problems -- Truth be told, this is not a great matchup for the Rangers, who have seen their speed and finesse game neutralized by the jagged-edged, punishing style of the Capitals. Washington is indeed a familiar foe and New York has beaten them in two of the past three playoff meetings, but Washington is a totally different club than before. A big part of that is the structure implemented by head coach Barry Trotz, who seems to have effected a sweeping culture change in his first season with the Capitals. Superstar captain Alex Ovechkin has bought in, playing with brute physicality and showing commitment to the defensive side of this game. A pair of veteran additions on defense in Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen has paid dividends, infusing the core with strong leadership. And talented youngsters like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, both of whom have had multigoal games this postseason, are breaking out at precisely the right time. For a Rangers team that excelled last spring in rolling four lines and getting balanced production, they seem outmatched in the depth department against the Capitals.