Henrik Lundqvist stood in front of his Verizon Center locker late on Saturday afternoon with his back turned, if only for a moment, to those waiting for him with microphones and notebooks.
He turned, adjusted his blue cap, sat down and let out a long deep breath. He had just faced 38 shots from the Washington Capitals in 68 minutes and had stopped the first 37.
He knew the only one that mattered was the last one, the one Mike Green had put behind him on a power play exactly eight minutes into overtime to give the Caps a 1-0 victory over Lundqvist’s New York Rangers in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal Stanley Cup playoff series.
This was one of those playoff games that Lundqvist had almost stolen single-handed for his team. Almost.
“This is a very, very disappointing loss right now,” he said, pausing to let out another long breath. “Very disappointing. Both teams put a lot of energy into trying to get this one. We played well enough to win and we didn’t get it done.”
Actually, Lundqvist played well enough to win. His teammates were outplayed most of the afternoon and were still playing in overtime only because Lundqvist — voted the game’s No. 1 star — repeatedly stoned the Caps.
“Hank was brilliant, just brilliant,” said Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman, who came closer than any of his teammates to scoring when he hit the corner of the post and crossbar early in the first period. “We need him to play that way every night to win this series. We just have to keep throwing pucks at [Caps goalie Braden] Holtby. He was very good today, too.”
Holtby was excellent — flawless, in fact — but he didn’t face nearly the pressure Lundqvist faced. The game was so intense, with constant post-whistle skirmishes, that Stralman had forgotten about his near miss after the game.
“It was so long ago,” he said, forcing a smile.
The Rangers have gone 111 minutes 16 seconds without a goal since Carl Hagelin scored at 16:44 of the first period of Game 1. If they had managed to put one puck behind Holtby in overtime they would have tied the series at a game apiece heading to New York for Game 3 on Monday.
They would have had momentum and the feeling that their goalie was starting to get inside the opponent’s head.
“The difference is pretty self-explanatory,” Capitals wing Joel Ward said. “Lundqvist made a lot of great saves — a lot of them. We had to keep after it. If they get the goal and it’s 1-1 going to New York, the feeling in here is a lot different.”
That’s the simple beauty of playoff hockey — especially overtime playoff hockey. As Lundqvist pointed out, the tiny difference between the teams on Saturday was special teams: the Rangers didn’t come close to scoring on three power plays; the Caps almost scored on their first man advantage and scored the game’s only goal on their second. The Rangers are 0-for-7 on the power play in the series; the Caps 2-for-7.
Both teams were called for delay-of-game penalties for flipping the puck into the stands in the overtime: the Caps’ Steve Oleksy at 1:51 and then, 3 minutes 18 seconds after the Caps had easily killed that alleged power play, the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh got called for the same infraction.
“Kind of weird the way it turned out,” Oleksy said. “That’s a tough rule sometimes. It’s nice to be able to smile about it in the end.”
There were no smiles in the near-silence of the Rangers locker room. McDonagh needed several minutes in a training room to collect himself before sitting down in front of his locker and quietly answering questions about his crucial mistake. To his credit and to the credit of his teammates, they faced all the questions patiently, even the ones about their inability to score.
“I don’t think it’s in our heads, no,” Dan Girardi said. “We’ve been through these [droughts] all season and we’ve come out of them. We just have to believe it’ll come and it will.”
The Rangers made it to the Eastern Conference finals a year ago thanks to Lundqvist and some luck — notably Ward’s penalty late in Game 5 in New York — and their grinding style that is normally very effective in the postseason.
They have a number of skilled goal scorers in Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan. But their inability to go from zone-to-zone quickly with the puck has hurt them throughout this season and was painfully evident again Saturday.
Naturally, their coach, John Tortorella, had almost nothing to say about his team’s inability to score or to find a way to win a game when his goalie was extraordinary. Tortorella enjoys intimidating the media with non-answers and glares in the direction of anyone who dares ask him a follow-up to his mono-syllabic responses.
His entire postgame press conference lasted three minutes and consisted of 53 words in response to five questions.
When he was asked what his team needed to do to get more scoring chances, Tortorella shrugged and said, “create more offense.”
What did he think was the problem with the power play?
Another shrug. “We’re just too stagnant. It’s almost as if we’re paralyzed out there.”
Why, he was asked, was his team stagnant and paralyzed on the power play? Tortorella stared for a moment as if thinking of an answer — which he clearly wasn’t.
“I’ll leave it at that,” he said finally.
His best answer was his last one. Could his team bounce back after such a deflating loss? “They’ll be fine,” he said. “They’ll be fine. They’re a good group.”
Maybe they will be fine, but the clear pain in Lundqvist’s voice — in startling contrast to his coach — was that this was a team that knew it had let a golden opportunity slip away.
It is often said that a best-of-seven series doesn’t really begin until someone loses at home. It didn’t feel like that on Saturday. It felt like the Caps had taken a huge punch from the Rangers, most of it in the form of their goalie, and had found a way to win a Stanley Cup playoff heavyweight fight.
“We were right there,” Lundqvist said. “We had a chance today. We were right there.”
In playoff hockey, right there doesn’t count. Wins count.
For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.