Alexander Semin may be a key to the Washington Capitals’ playoff hopes

Alexander Semin’s sublime skill has never been in doubt. His commitment to using it on every shift, though, has been the subject of much consternation during his tenure as a Washington Capital. But if the mercurial winger’s effort in Game 1 against the New York Rangers is an indication of what’s to come, the rest of the NHL should watch out.

On Wednesday, the Capitals improved to 20-0-1 this season when Semin scores, after he fired a shot past Henrik Lundqvist in overtime. Semin’s one-timer was so sweet, it even left the New York Rangers’ all-star goalie in awe.

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“The shot was just a rocket,” Lundqvist said. “I didn’t have time to react on that one.”

The Capitals’ 2-1 win was critical for the team’s confidence after last spring’s first-round collapse against Montreal. That Semin notched the winner may have been equally as important, given that his springtime struggles have come to symbolize a Washington hockey team yet to realize its potential in the postseason.

Semin carried a 14-game playoffs goal drought into the Rangers series after being held to a pair of assists against the Canadiens last April (despite launching 44 shots on net) and no goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals.

“I feel great,” Semin said through an interpreter before quickly changing the subject. “We won the game. That’s the most important thing.”

In addition to scoring the first playoff winner of his career, Semin assisted on Alex Ovechkin’s game-tying tally and fired four shots on goal. He also rang a shot off the crossbar late in the first period.

“You can tell — as a guy that has coached Alex for a long time — when he’s on and when he’s into it and when he’s really good,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “From the moment they dropped the puck, he wanted this. He knows that he hadn’t scored in a while in the playoffs, and to come in and get a goal and assist when you win 2-1, it’s a true tell of how bad he wanted it.”

If the Capitals are lucky, it also could signal the start of another hot spell for one of the NHL’s streakiest scorers. Eighteen of Semin’s 28 goals in the regular season came in the first 25 games. Then he went cold, scoring in only two of his next 25.

But he regained his scoring touch in early March, tallying in three consecutive contests. A couple of weeks later, he scored three times in four games.

“We want everybody to play the best they can every day,” Boudreau said. “Hopefully [Wednesday] wasn’t his best game, and he can continue on that pace.”

This, obviously, would be a good time for Semin to go on one of those scoring sprees. Based on how the series opener unfolded, goals are going to be at a premium against New York. The Rangers play hard, are committed to team defense, block a ton of shots and, when a mistake does occur, have one of the world’s best goaltenders to cover for them.

That said, they are not particularly deep. Which puts Semin and the second line in position to make a crucial difference in the series.

A streaking Semin gives Rangers Coach John Tortorella something else to consider when choosing which Capitals line to focus on shutting down: Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble or Marco Sturm, Jason Arnott and Semin. After New York’s top defensive pair of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi there is a measurable drop to youngsters Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh.

“If he’s playing the way he’s capable, he gives you two lines and that makes it difficult to [decide] which line you put your best defensive pair against,” Boudreau acknowledged, referring to Semin. “When he’s going, it makes our team that much more dangerous, I believe.”

As good as Semin was Wednesday, he wasn’t perfect. He was whistled for a first-period hooking penalty in a game in which referees Dan O’Halloran and Brian Pochmara pretty much put away their whistles. The Capitals’ penalty kill bailed him out.

Although the penalty didn’t end up costing Washington, questionable decisions such as that one are the reason the Capitals blogosphere alternates between referring to Semin as “Good Sasha” and his alter ego, “Bad Sasha.”

In Game 1 it was mostly Good Sasha. If the Capitals hope to win the series and, just as important, keep it short, they’re going to need more of the same from him.

“Everybody knows he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Ovechkin, Semin’s closest friend. “Right now it’s time to be the best.”

 
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