The Washington Capitals have found their identity this spring in being able to respond to tough losses and adversity with aplomb. On Wednesday night, facing elimination against the top-seeded New York Rangers, they came through again, this time with arguably their most dominant performance of the postseason.
Washington put forth a relentless display en route to a 2-1 win over the Rangers in Game 6 at Verizon Center to even this Eastern Conference semifinal series at three games apiece. The decisive Game 7 will be Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“These are the games that you live to play,” Capitals center Matt Hendricks said. “Back against the wall, pressure situations and when you achieve it, it’s a great feeling. We’ve still got one big game to win.”
Alex Ovechkin and Jason Chimera each scored a goal, and in the net, rookie goaltender Braden Holtby was unflappable and nearly perfect, stopping 30 of the 31 shots he faced.
From the beginning it was clear the Capitals intended to rebound from their overtime loss in Game 5 with force, and their intensity was undeniable.
Chimera drew a penalty on Anton Stralman on a hustle play up ice when he forced the Rangers defenseman to haul him down just 73 seconds in. On the ensuing power play the Capitals took the lead.
Rapid tic-tac-toe passing around the perimeter, from Dennis Wideman in the circle to Mike Green on the point to Nicklas Backstrom on the top along the right half-wall, stretched the New York penalty kill thin across the middle. That’s exactly where Backstrom sent his pass — to the slot, where Ovechkin sent a blistering one-timer past Henrik Lundqvist’s glove hand. Lundqvist finished with 21 saves, but in this series the team that has scored first has won every game.
The tally 1 minute 28 seconds into the contest put Washington up 1-0 and marked Ovechkin’s 30th career playoff goal, tying him for the all-time franchise record with Peter Bondra. Ovechkin, who finished with the goal, three shots, five hits and three blocked shots in 15:14 of ice time, also became the first player to record 30 goals in his first 50 playoff games since Joe Sakic did so in 1997.
“It’s not about me; it’s all about everybody,” Ovechkin said when asked about his fast start. “We wanna play good in playoff game. Of course I’m gonna do my best and everybody gonna do their best. You can see how we start hockey game where we put puck deep and finish our checks and move our legs, get penalty and score goal.”
The Capitals continued to put pressure on New York, which couldn’t seem to find any traction or consistency in its game. Even with its dominant play, Washington couldn’t find a way to increase its lead in the first period.
Midway through the second period, Chimera, who had zipped around the ice with a head of steam all night, swatted a loose puck across the goal line to make it 2-0. The goal, which came at 10:59 of the middle period, was his fourth of the playoffs and third of the series.
“Everyone, I think, counted us out. This is the way we are. . . . We don’t really crack,” Chimera said. “Just staying focused, stay in the moment. I think we know we’ve been in every game. I think it’s been close. I think every game we’ve had a chance to win, which is a good thing.”
Washington barely had time to relish the two-goal lead when Jeff Halpern, in the lineup for the first time since March 23 because of an apparent injury to Jay Beagle, received a double-minor for high-sticking.
Facing a pivotal penalty to thwart in the middle of the game without Beagle, who is second among Capitals forwards in short-handed ice time per game this postseason, the Capitals stepped it up once more.
New York mustered only three shots on goal during the four-minute power play and was limited to the outside of the zone by the aggressive penalty killers. When the penalty expired, the sold-out Verizon Center crowd saluted the team clad in red with a roaring standing ovation that lasted long into a television commercial break.
The Capitals carried the two-goal edge into the third period, and Wednesday night marked the longest that Washington had been up by a pair of goals in the entire postseason.
New York erased Holtby’s shutout bid when a shot by Marian Gaborik went off John Carlson in front and redirected into the open net with 50.5 seconds remaining in regulation, but the tally was simply window dressing as the Capitals’ bounce-back performance was complete.
“That was the game plan, like we’ve been playing this whole playoffs,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’re resilient; we have that thick skin. We know when to battle back when we need to and have to. It was a great start for us, huge to get that first goal and get the building going. It was a really, really nice effort from us.”
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