By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009
NEW YORK, April 26 -- Tom Poti's most productive game as an NHL player couldn't have come at a more critical time for the Washington Capitals.
With his team facing a hostile Madison Square Garden crowd and possible elimination for the second straight game, Poti scored a goal and helped set up three more to lead the Capitals to an almost-too-easy-to-believe 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers, who played without Coach John Tortorella.
Game 7 is Tuesday at Verizon Center, which will host a decisive first-round contest for the second consecutive season.
"You have to get scoring from everyone in the playoffs," said Poti, who had a total of 13 points in an injury-plagued regular season. "You can't have your big guys scoring night in and night out. You have to have your grinders and your role players score some goals, too."
On Friday, the unlikely hero of Game 5 was checking-line winger Matt Bradley. On Sunday afternoon, it was Poti's turn.
Poti's second goal of the playoffs capped a first period in which the Capitals received goals from three defensemen (Milan Jurcina and Mike Green also tallied). More important, it disheartened the Rangers and turned the capacity crowd against the home team.
By the end of the second period, the Capitals were ahead 5-1, the Rangers were being booed relentlessly and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was being mocked after simple saves. Whatever momentum the Rangers had five days ago when they opened a three-games-to-one lead, it was gone.
With two wins in a row, the momentum belongs to the Capitals now. And they've got two Rangers -- Lundqvist and Tortorella -- to thank for it.
Lundqvist almost single-handedly won Games 1, 2 and 4. But he's been decidedly ordinary in the past two, and on Sunday, he watched from the bench in the third period for the second straight game after yielding five goals on 20 shots (nine on 34 going back to Game 5).
"He can't play every game like a god," said Alex Ovechkin, who notched his third goal of the playoffs in the second period. "He can't save the game all the time."
Tortorella, meantime, was suspended late Saturday night for one game after tossing a water bottle into the Verizon Center stands in the third period of Friday's game. He was replaced by assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld, who, ironically enough, was banned for one game after famously telling referee Don Koharski to "have another doughnut" during the 1988 Eastern Conference finals.
Before the game, Schoenfeld said Tortorella stood for his players when he confronted a heckler in Washington. But the move also left the Rangers without the man who had given them direction when they had lost their way, the man who had figured out which buttons to press when no one else could.
Tortorella was helpless as he watched from a suite as his Rangers -- and the star goalie who had once threatened to steal the series -- unraveled in the first period.
Jurcina, who owns one of the hardest shots in the league, opened the scoring at 7 minutes 9 seconds, blasting a shot from the middle circle. The puck beat Lundqvist short side over the glove.
The Rangers came right back 66 seconds later on a power-play goal by Scott Gomez, who redirected a point shot by Wade Redden around Capitals rookie Simeon Varlamov, who made 29 saves.
Moments after that, a physical game got ugly. Washington's Donald Brashear laid out Blair Betts with a high hit in front of the benches seconds after Betts had played the puck. Betts stayed down and had to be helped to the dressing room, apparently suffering from a head injury that ended his afternoon early. Brashear and Paul Mara, who confronted the Capitals' enforcer, each were assessed matching roughing minors. It's unclear whether Brashear will face disciplinary action for a hit that Schoenfeld called "pretty vicious."
About three minutes later, the Capitals were in control. With Mara back in the box for holding, Green scored his first goal of the playoffs at 13:58. A rebound off Redden shot out to Green, who buried it past Lundqvist -- on the short side, again.
Poti extended the lead to 3-1 after stepping out of the penalty box and initiating an odd-man rush that he finished after a beautiful display of passing by a trio of players not necessarily known for pretty plays. Poti passed to Gordon, who dropped the puck to David Steckel, who passed back across the crease to Poti, who tucked it in neatly behind Lundqvist.
One of the loudest buildings in the league suddenly was sullen and eerily silent.
"I saw it was me, Gordo and Stecks on a three on one -- that's pretty rare to have the top PK guys out there on a three-on-one," said Poti, who cupped his gloved hand to his ear as he left the ice after the game, imploring the crowd that has been tough on him since his days as a Ranger. "But Stecks made a great backdoor pass and I put it in."
Steckel, who had two assists, said: "I've seen that before, but I've never been a part of it."
Poti's four-point performance equaled his career high, which was established at the Garden as a member of the Rangers in 2004. The 32-year-old had never scored more than a pair of points in two seasons with the Capitals.
Now Poti gets a chance at redemption.
Last spring, he was in the penalty box when Philadelphia's Joffrey Lupul scored in overtime of Game 7 in the quarterfinals, sending the Capitals to a crushing defeat on home ice. Poti hopes that experience is something his teammates will be able to draw from on Tuesday.
"We were in the situation last year, so we have a little bit of experience with it," Poti said. "That was the first Game 7 for a lot of guys last year. Maybe they won't be as nervous at the start of the game. We know what we have to do, and that's play a perfect game to win the series. Who comes out and plays the most perfect game is going to win."