Jason Brough

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Rangers expecting better Sens effort in Game 4

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The New York Rangers know the Ottawa Senators will be better tonight.

After all, the Sens could hardly play worse than they did Tuesday at MSG. The Rangers dominated from the very start and came away with a well-deserved 4-1 win.

That win got the Rangers back in the series, which they now trail 2-1. But a loss tonight would be tough to overcome. Game 5 and, if necessary, Game 7 are in Ottawa, plus New York would have to win a game at home.

“We’re still down 2-1 in the series,” said veteran forward Derek Stepan, per NHL.com. “Game 3 was good, but Game 3 is gone and past now. It doesn’t mean anything. I don’t think we’re going to see the same Ottawa team come out in Game 4, so we better be ready to go right from the start. We’re still chasing the series right now.”

The Senators also need to recognize the situation and draw some motivation from it. They couldn’t match the Rangers’ desperation on Tuesday, and now they’re in danger of letting a 2-0 series lead slip away.

“We have to have the urgency, the battle level that we normally have,” coach Guy Boucher said. “And we’ve gotta match theirs. Because we know that they’ll be home and they’ll most probably display the exact same urgency as they did last game.”

Related: Bobby Ryan ready to go for Game 4

Blocking shots ‘mandatory,’ but how many is too many?

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Nothing says sacrifice for a hockey team like blocking a shot, no matter how dangerous.

Ian Laperriere took a puck to the face during the Flyers’ run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final and was heralded as a hero, even though post-concussion symptoms blamed on the blow ended his career the following fall. Gregory Campbell could barely skate on a broken leg after blocking a shot in 2013, but finishing his shift during the Bruins’ run made him into a cult phenomenon in a sport that glorifies taking frozen rubber fired at more than 100 mph off whatever part of your body you choose – as long as you keep it out of the net.

Shot-blocking is still an essential part of playoff hockey, though the risk-reward value of the time-honored tradition filled with bruises and broken bones is being questioned like never before.

“I think shot blocking’s a last resort,” said Ian Cole, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ shot-blocker extraordinaire. “It’s not something that you try to go out and search for.”

Hockey’s analytics awakening has put a premium on holding on to the puck and attempting more shots than your opponent. By that measure of success, blocking too many shots means you’re on the defensive too much.

“If you’re blocking an absolute ton of shots, you’re probably not having a very good game,” Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “You don’t have the puck much and you’re not closing on people. You’re slow. They’re playing way faster than you. They have too much space.”

The best teams still block shots, a necessary evil this time of year with scoring usually at a premium. Coaches insist it’s still part of what it takes to win.

“When you’re blocking shots, it’s an element of playing team defense,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’d like to spend less time in our end zone, we’d like to make sure that we hang on to pucks in the offensive game, we establish a puck-pursuit game, we try to get out of our end zone clean with our breakouts.”

The Penguins blocked 18 shots a game on the way to the championship last season and are averaging 19.3 so far in these playoffs. Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher said his team should block 22 to 25 every game and called the 11 blocks in Game 3 against the New York Rangers “not even close to our standards.”

Read more: Rangers ‘just wanted it more than us,’ says Sens coach

Some teams like Pittsburgh and Ottawa rely on shot-blocking, and the improvement in that area of Senators captain Erik Karlsson helped earn him another Norris Trophy nomination as the NHL’s top defenseman. Karlsson also played during the first round with two microfractures in one of his feet from blocking a shot late in the regular season, somehow still playing better than everyone else on the ice in the process.

Karlsson, of course, is unique.

“With the way guys shoot the puck with these kinds of sticks now, you see a lot of those teams with a lot of injuries,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I’m sure there’s some people that think it’s great sacrifice, and I’m sure there’s some people that think it’s stupid and pointless.”

There is an in-between. Teams like the Penguins have two or three layers of potential shot-blockers as part of their defensive-zone coverage, like the teams of Sullivan’s friend and colleague John Tortorella, who made laying out on the ice something of an art.

Even for teams that would rather defend than block shots, sometimes getting in the way of a slap shot is like encountering a grizzly bear.

“You have to try to make yourself as big as possible,” Niskanen said. “Even if you don’t want to block it, you’re making them shoot somewhere where they don’t want to.”

More than likely a team blocking a ton of shots is enduring a ton of injuries. Capitals center Jay Beagle broke his foot in the second round against the New York Rangers in 2012, an injury that contributed to a Game 5 loss and an absence that cost Washington the series.

But there’s no perfect way to block a shot without loading up on equipment like plastic shot-blockers.

“You don’t know where the guy’s shooting,” Beagle said. “You know around the vicinity of where he’s going to shoot when he releases it, but usually I’m so close to a shooter that it’s coming off his stick and `Boom!’ I’m hoping that it hits my body. There’s little ways where you don’t expose yourself to vulnerable areas, but sometimes you have to in order to get that block.”

As Sullivan and Washington’s Barry Trotz pointed out, there isn’t a coach around who will tell a player to get out of the way. Nor is there a player with his sights set on the Cup who will get out of the way even if it’s risky.

“It’s still mandatory,” Niskanen said. “Every team’s going to get opportunities to shoot the puck, so it’s still a requirement to block it.”

That’s why Cole, who’s second in blocks in the playoffs behind Edmonton’s Kris Russell, is such a valuable piece of the Penguins’ defense: He’s good at something he doesn’t necessarily want to do every shift.

“It’s something that there’s a high desperation level come playoffs and everybody’s doing it,” said Cole, who has 31 blocks in nine games. “You don’t want to try to force it, you don’t want to try to dive in front of every shot, but it the opportunity arises, you want to try to get the shot blocked.”

 

Three Capitals stats that explain their predicament

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The Washington Capitals are on the brink of another painful playoff exit. Here are three stats that help explain why:

.867Braden Holtby‘s save percentage in four games against the Penguins. No, it doesn’t help when his own teammates score on him, but Holtby has been badly outplayed by Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, who owns a .937 save percentage in the series. Holtby also had his struggles in the first round against Toronto, but he bounced back with two solid starts to finish off the Leafs. If the Caps are going to make a comeback against Pittsburgh, he’ll need to do the same.

15 — Times shorthanded in the series. The Penguins have only scored twice on the power play, but one of them was Justin Schultz‘s game-winner on Wednesday. Running around and taking too many penalties also gets a team out of its rhythm, as evidenced by last night’s first period when the Caps took two minors and looked totally out of sorts.

0 — Points for Andre Burakovsky against the Pens. Ditto for Tom Wilson. And Lars Eller has just one assist. Scoring depth was supposed to be Washington’s most improved area. Instead, it’s a major problem, just like it was last year. For all the heat Alex Ovechkin is bound to take if the Caps blow it again, a number of his teammates aren’t pulling their weight.

Related: How the Penguins held on to steal Game 4 against the Capitals

Crosby skates at Penguins practice facility

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Mike Sullivan wouldn’t provide much of an update, but the news that Sidney Crosby skated this morning can only be seen as promising for the Penguins and their fans.

“He’s in the process of rehabbing,” Sullivan said, per Bill West of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We’ll just leave it at that.”

The Penguins have an off day today after last night’s big win over the Capitals. But Crosby, who’s been diagnosed with a concussion, skated in full gear at the team’s practice facility.

According to TSN’s Mark Masters, the Penguins put up black drapes to keep reporters from taking any video of Crosby’s skate.

Game 5 of the Caps-Pens series goes Saturday in Washington. It seems unlikely that Crosby would return then. But if the series goes to Game 6 (Monday) or 7 (Wednesday), there could be quite the decision to make.

The Pens lead the Caps, 3-1.

Brendan Smith, a pending UFA, showing well in playoffs

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Brendan Smith could really cash in this summer.

A pending unrestricted free agent, the 28-year-old defenseman has shown well since being traded from the Red Wings to the Rangers at the deadline.

Smith is plus-8 in nine playoff games. Among Rangers d-men, only Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have been on the ice more.

“I love his game. He’s so hard to play against,” said teammate Tanner Glass, per the Daily News. “I remember the same thing when we was playing in Detroit. He was always one of those guys that when you go to the net you’ve got to be aware of when he’s out there.”

It is not a bumper crop of free-agent defensemen this summer. Kevin Shattenkirk will be the top dog, while the second tier includes under-30s like Smith, Karl Alzner and Michael Stone.

Smith told the Daily News he could see himself signing in New York.

But the Rangers may not have the flexibility to keep him — especially if they pursue Shattenkirk, as many expect them to do.