It was just past the midway point of Game 1 of this Eastern Conference first-round playoff series when the familiarity between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers turned hostile. There was a multi-player pile-up; punches were exchanged.
The Rangers emerged from the fracas with a 5-on-3 power play in a 1-1 game and a clear opportunity to seize control. Instead, the Capitals’ penalty killers calmly and confidently dispatched the two-man advantage, then the normal power play that remained, sending the capacity crowd at Verizon Center into a frenzy and shifting the course of the contest.
Less than two minutes later, Marcus Johansson gave Washington a lead. Forty-six seconds after that, Jason Chimera added another goal. The 3-1 advantage would stand up as the final score as the Capitals secured a series-opening win. The two teams will square off again Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center in Game 2.
“Any time you kill a 5-on-3 it definitely gives you momentum,” said defenseman Steve Oleksy, who was part of the group that thwarted the remaining power play. “That that really set the tone for the rest of the game.”
The hustle the Capitals showed in that penalty kill and then in pushing through the successful special teams to gain the lead was also evident from the opening faceoff.
Washington showed how it can dominate a contest from the outset with waves of relentless offensive-zone cycles and meticulous work in the neutral zone to force turnovers. For the better part of the first period the Rangers could barely maintain possession for more than a few seconds, but despite being outshot 11-1 to start the game they would score first.
A failed clearing attempt by Jay Beagle allowed New York to maintain possession and then John Carlson lost a battle for the puck behind the net, allowing speedy Carl Hagelin a wraparound chance. Hagelin’s shot banked off the skate of John Erskine and past Braden Holtby to give New York a 1-0 lead at the 16:44 mark.
The Rangers took that lead into the first intermission, but given the lopsided play Washington stayed the course.
“They score goal but we knew it was kind of luck,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We knew if we going to stay the system and stay focused we going to get it, because we still have chances in the first period.”
The Capitals’ power play, on its fourth opportunity of the night, finally came through just under seven minutes into the second period.
A booming shot by Mike Green bounced off the end boards and then caromed back out in front where Ovechkin was able to swoop in from the left circle for a quick shot past Henrik Lundqvist (27 saves) to pull Washington even at 1.
But it was then that the hard checks spilled over into pushing and shoving between whistles. When Rick Nash and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan started digging for a puck under Holtby’s pads on a power play, the Capitals didn’t react kindly. Erskine jumped in the fray as did Eric Fehr, who managed to get in a few shots on Callahan.
Fehr received two minor penalties to Callahan’s one, giving New York a 56-second 5-on-3 advantage with Martin Erat still in the penalty box for boarding. The Capitals’ penalty kill allowed just one shot on goal during the two-man advantage, bringing roars from the crowd.
“Those are some real tough minutes,” Fehr said. “Four minutes probably felt like a half-hour in there. Other guys did a great job killing it. That was – you know, that’s a big turning point for us. We kill it and we score right after.”
The unit gave up just two shots on the remaining 1:04 of Fehr’s penalty, including a point-blank look by Derick Brassard in front, but Holtby didn’t falter. As the New York power play expired those faithfully rocking the red stood in deafening exaltation of the successful penalty killers.
“We were really praying for the penalty killers to make it,” said Chimera, who was serving Fehr’s second penalty in the box. “When you’re down 5-on-3, your goaltender’s huge, and Holts made some big saves, which was awesome. When you get a 5-on-3 against [you] like that and you kill it, it’s a huge lift.”
Before the buzz from the penalty kill died down, Johansson scored on a breakaway to put the Capitals up, 2-1.
Oleksy sent a perfect pass from deep in the defensive zone out to Johansson on the offensive blue line and the swift-skating Swede took advantage of the rare open ice. Johansson fired a perfectly placed shot under Lundqvist’s arm.
“It was a great pass. That was an unbelievable pass,” Johansson said. “It was right on the tape. I just tried to score before they catch me.”
On the ensuing shift Chimera made what seemed like a harmless long-range, no-look shot from near the Capitals’ bench. But that’s precisely the type of play that helps boost a team in the postseason.
The puck caught Lundqvist off guard and wound up in the back of the net for a 3-1 Washington lead. The tally marked Chimera’s sixth goal in 13 career playoff games against the Rangers, who were unable to beat Holtby again and mount any sort of comeback.
“We didn’t quit playing our game,” Holtby said. “Last year if we got a lead we tried to almost trap, I guess. They both work. But our system we feel is more suitable to our team. And it worked tonight.”