By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009
NEW YORK, April 22 -- The Washington Capitals haven't advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since their memorable run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998.
Now they find themselves on the verge of another first-round disappointment.
Henrik Lundqvist was sensational in the net for New York, stopping 38 shots, including all 19 he faced in the second period, and the Rangers' top-ranked penalty-kill unit extinguished six power plays to clinch a 2-1 victory over the Capitals in Game 4 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
Washington, which trails three games to one, will face elimination Friday at Verizon Center.
"We made some mistakes," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We left it all out there."
But it wasn't enough against Lundqvist and a Rangers team that benefited from a lucky bounce and a rare mistake by Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov (19 saves).
Washington already faced long odds after dropping the first two games of the series in the District. Now the second seed's odds are even longer. Teams that have trailed 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have only come back to win 8.7 percent of the time (20 of 229). The last time it happened was 2004, when Montreal rallied to beat Boston in the conference quarterfinals.
The Capitals nearly pulled it off last spring when they rallied from a two-game deficit against Philadelphia to a Game 7, which ended with the Flyers celebrating an overtime victory at Verizon Center. Boudreau and his players hope that experience will pay off this season.
"We're going to try," Boudreau said. "It's a different team, different year, different circumstances. But it's the same situation."
Added defenseman Tom Poti: "It was a learning experience for us last year. We've been playing great at some times, and really good at other times, but we're not getting the job done. We have to pick it up. [Lundqvist] made some awesome saves. But it's our job to score, and tonight we didn't do it."
Early in the third, Alex Ovechkin scored his first goal of the series to cut the Rangers' lead to 2-1. The reigning league MVP gathered a loose puck in New York's end, blasted through neutral ice and beat Lundqvist with a hard wrist shot that clanked loudly off the post and went in.
It was all the Capitals managed to squeeze past Lundqvist, despite Sean Avery's best attempt to help them.
Avery was whistled for roughing at 10 minutes 21 seconds after he punched defenseman Milan Jurcina in the face, drawing blood. Avery's ill-advised penalty gave the Capitals a fifth power play. Ovechkin and his teammates pinned the puck in the Rangers' end for almost the entire two minutes, but they mustered only one shot on net during their advantage. Ovechkin rang another shot off the post.
Then with 3:06 left, Avery was sent to the box once more after whacking defenseman Brian Pothier across the face with his stick. But once again, the Capitals managed only one shot.
"Well, he gave us a chance," Boudreau said of Avery's antics. "Obviously too much passing and not enough going after the net."
Ovechkin said: "We just didn't play our game on the power play. Sometimes we play well and sometimes we get too cute. Lundqvist saved the game again."
As the time wound down, the fans chanted, "Henrik, Henrik" in honor of their goaltending hero.
Boudreau predicted the Rangers would come out stronger than they did Monday. And he was right.
After six minutes, the Rangers controlled the play and held a 4-0 edge in shots. Varlamov, however, kept them off the scoreboard. Only 1:15 in, Ryan Callahan split the Washington defense at the blueline and raced in alone before being stopped by a pad save.
Later in the period, Varlamov went into a full split to stuff Nikolai Zhderdev's attempt from the side of the net. But the Rangers took a 1-0 lead on the ensuing faceoff thanks to a fluky bounce.
Brandon Dubinsky won a faceoff cleanly in the Washington zone, sending the puck back to Paul Mara. The defenseman rifled a shot into the corner, but before the puck got there, it deflected off Capitals defenseman John Erskine's stick, changing trajectory before eluding an unsuspecting Varlamov at 13:55 to open the scoring.
In the second period, the Capitals out-shot the Rangers 19-5, but went into the third period trailing 2-0 after Varlamov's first misstep since replacing veteran José Theodore prior to Game 2.
Varlamov failed to close his glove on a long shot by Chris Drury, then after Varlamov bobbled the puck, Drury wound up flipping a shot from an almost impossible angle under the crossbar at 2:23.
"I tried twice to squeeze the puck, but I couldn't and I dropped it," Varlamov said through an interpreter. "Hockey is a game where if you make a mistake, you have forget about it and move on."
Varlamov rebounded and stopped the final seven shots as the Capitals controlled the time of possession in the second and third periods.
But the story of the game unfolded furiously at the other end of the rink. In the second period, Washington's power play, which was the league's second-ranked unit in the regular season, went 0 for 2. The key kill came midway through the period. With Michal Roszival in the penalty box for holding, Lundqvist turned away Ovechkin twice and Brooks Laich another two times.
In the third period, Ovechkin finally did what he does best: score a big goal at a critical moment. But Lundqvist made sure it was as close as the Capitals would get.
"Somebody is going to have to score on this guy," Boudreau said. "You can nitpick all you want, but we took 39 shots. When you outshoot a team 19-5 in their building and you're down 1-0, the other goalie is doing something right."