By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
NEW YORK, April 20 -- If there was any doubt about the youthful Washington Capitals' ability to match the playoff-tested New York Rangers' intensity, effort and desire, Alexander Semin and his teammates provided an emphatic response Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Semin scored twice in less than five minutes in the first period, Nicklas Backstrom had three assists and four hits and rookie Simeon Varlamov was unbeatable in goal as the Capitals climbed back into this Eastern Conference first-round series with a convincing 4-0 victory over the penalty-prone Rangers.
"The first two games, we played two really good regular season games," checking-line forward David Steckel said. "Tonight we played a playoff game. We rose to the occasion and got it done."
But as good as Semin, Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin (two assists) were on a night when the Capitals' first three goals were all scored within 15 feet, the Capitals' youngest player went to work at the other end of the rink. Varlamov, who was making only his second career playoff start and doesn't turn 21 until next week, made 33 saves to extend his scoreless streak to 112 minutes 16 seconds.
"Let's not forget even though he's 20 years old, he's played in the finals of the Russian elite league, which to him is probably like our Stanley Cup," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of the young Russian. "He's played in the world championship. And the fact that he doesn't understand a word we're saying probably really helps him."
After losing the series' first two games in the District, including a disheartening 1-0 defeat on Saturday, the Capitals arrived here facing long odds and one of the NHL's most hostile environments. By midway through the first period, however, they had silenced the capacity crowd of 18,200.
With revamped forward combinations -- Boudreau put Sergei Fedorov on the top line with Ovechkin and put Backstrom on the second line with Semin -- the Capitals dominated from the outset. They fired 14 shots on Rangers' goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in the first period and, on Monday, actually had something to show for their effort thanks to Semin and a timely turn of events.
Semin went to the net and Backstrom sent him a slick, cross-ice pass from the half wall. Semin snapped the puck past Lundqvist before the Rangers' goalie could get across the crease.
Then came the turning point.
The Rangers appeared to tie things up moments later when Ryan Callahan beat Varlamov with a shot from the top of the circle. The fans behind the goal jumped up to celebrate and the Rangers themselves seemed to let up momentarily, thinking they had scored. But before anyone realized that Callahan's shot had hit the post -- and not the middle support bar or the camera inside the net -- the Capitals were on the attack deep in the New York zone. Backstrom initiated the play in the corner, circling with the puck and bulldozing Callahan with a stiff shoulder check. Backstrom then zipped a pass to Ovechkin, who quickly got the puck across the crease to Semin, who banged in his third goal of the playoffs at 11 minutes 36 seconds.
"It was a momentum changer," Boudreau said. "But at the same time, how often does that happen? It's the luck of hockey and the luck of sport. Some guy hits the post on a great opportunity and you go down to the other end and score so instead of 1-1 you've got 2-0 and your team is going in after the first period with a lot of confidence."
On Backstrom's inspired performance, Boudreau said: "I don't know if there's words. I think the pass he made on the fourth goal was as good as any pass I've ever seen."
The Capitals' effort was exactly the type Boudreau sought when he challenged his team Monday morning, saying, "You have to do more in the playoffs to succeed than you do in the regular season a lot of the time."
About midway through the second period, Lundqvist robbed Tomas Fleischmann on a one-on-one break with a brilliant pad save. But about three minutes later, Brooks Laich staked the Capitals to a 3-0 lead with another gritty goal.
Fedorov made a short pass in the corner to Semin, who made a strong move to the net but was denied by Lundqvist. Laich, however, crashed the net and jammed the rebound between Lundqvist's skate and the post to extend Washington's lead at 11:29.
The Capitals' increased effort was apparent everywhere. But it was never more obvious than late in the second period when Ovechkin coughed up the puck at the point on the power play. Lauri Korpikoski raced in the other direction on a breakaway. Ovechkin, though, made a diving swipe to knock the puck off of Korpikoski's stick before hurtling head first into the net.
"It's the playoffs," Ovechkin said bluntly. Boudreau added: "You see the effort that he's putting in. How can players not just read off that and say, 'If he's going to try that hard and make such a great defensive play at a very pivotal point in the game, then how can we not work that hard.' I thought it was a tremendous leadership play and that's why he is who he is."
The Capitals also did a good job resisting the urge to engage Sean Avery. The Rangers' pest punched defenseman John Erskine in the face early in the second period (Erskine did not respond). Avery also sucker-punched Varlamov late in the game, drawing his fourth penalty of the game and misconduct.
It was fitting that defenseman Tom Poti scored his first career playoff goal in front a crowd that loves to hate him. The former Ranger struck on a power play with 1:25 remaining to provide the final margin, eliciting a chant of "Poti [stinks]."
"I love it," Poti said with his signature smirk. "Music to my ears."