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Leonard: After Holtby's shutout, Rangers road gets harder

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Capitals goalie Braden Holtby stands up to the Rangers offense, pitching a shutout in Game 3.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Capitals goalie Braden Holtby stands up to the Rangers offense, pitching a shutout in Game 3.

WASHINGTON – Rick Nash typically is out of his gear quickly in a postgame locker room, standing up to review the recently completed game. Monday night, after the Rangers’ second road shutout loss of the 2014-15 season – regular season or playoffs – Nash was in no rush.

You could almost see the weight on the Rangers’ franchise forward’s shoulders as he sat looking up, prepared to give an answer but appearing more like he needed to hear one, after all of his game-high seven shots on goal were turned away by Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.

After none of his game-high 15 shot attempts found the back of the net. After the Rangers lost, 1-0, fell behind 2-1 in this second-round series, and Nash remained stuck on one goal through eight games in these playoffs – even though he had deserved one on this night.

“A bounce would be nice,” Nash said, when asked about how on some nights, luck just isn’t on your side. “The ones that were going in early in the season aren’t there. Especially when your goalie gives you a chance to win, I definitely look at myself, and it’s frustrating.”

He was not making excuses. He was not running from his part in the defeat. But on this night, the scapegoat of last year’s near-miss at the Stanley Cup did all he could, as did his linemate, Martin St. Louis, on the offensive side.

They teamed for a thunderous crease-crash with 6:12 remaining in the second period, on which Holtby denied St. Louis in tight and then made a startling right pad save on Nash’s rebound as the big fella roared in with a tricky backhand jab.

“This game could have gone either way,” St. Louis said a few stalls down from Nash, as the linemates in Mats Zuccarello’s injury absence talked over the game that just was.

St. Louis is correct. This was an excellent hockey game. The Blueshirts easily could have woken up on Tuesday morning leading the series instead of trailing, if Jay Beagle’s wraparound hadn’t banked in off Keith Yandle’s and Henrik Lundqvist’s skates with 12:29 to play in the second period.

Most of their games so far in the playoffs have been this way. That’s characteristic of the postseason, also, to a point.

There is nothing wrong with not being able to pull away as you go deeper into the postseason and the games get tighter and the competition improves. But the Rangers’ 1.88 goals-per-game average through eight matches is unacceptable and won’t even get them as far as they went last season.

Alain Vigneault’s team started this game hot, allowed just three Capitals even-strength shots on Lundqvist in the first period, and poured it on late. Rookie center Kevin Hayes was heavily involved in the third period action, which included the final 82 seconds with Lundqvist on the bench.

But for large stretches, despite outshooting the Caps 30-22, the Rangers were kept to the outside of the offensive zone. Most chances until a few in the frantic last minutes were non-threatening, excluding a St. Louis breakaway that Holtby swallowed up.

“It was a tight game the whole 60 minutes,” right wing Jesper Fast said. “But we have to have that extra effort to get in front. They got a lucky bounce on a goal and then they played smart. We’ve got to get inside, in front of their goalie.”

When the Rangers did create traffic, the Capitals’ defensemen fought through and blocked 27 shot attempts.

“If we were in front, their players were stepping in front of us,” Nash said. “But in playoff hockey you work for your bounces, and that’s how you win games.”

Nash had three goals in 25 games last postseason. He had a career-high 42 goals this past regular season but now has just one in eight games so far in these playoffs.

The Rangers averaged 3.02 goals per game this regular season. They are down to 1.88 now, and when that happens, players get down, and the team goes down, as the Blueshirts did in this series on Monday night.

“I didn’t feel they even had much momentum in this hockey game, to be honest,” Marc Staal said of the Caps. “We didn’t give them much, but we didn’t create enough for ourselves, either. It was as simple as that.”

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