By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The Washington Capitals are known primarily for their "Young Guns." But on a night when youthful exuberance wasn't going to be enough, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom had to be rescued by the oldest player on the roster.
Sergei Fedorov scored with 4 minutes 59 seconds remaining, rifling a shot past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to send the Capitals to a 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The victory, which came before a red-clad capacity crowd that stood and roared from the 39-year-old Fedorov's goal until the final horn, catapulted the Capitals into the second round for the first time since 1998, the year Fedorov's Detroit Red Wings swept Washington out of the Stanley Cup finals.
"Yeah, he's got quite a shot," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team became the 21st in history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit. "Tonight, let's face it, experience sometimes pays off and he knew what he had to do and when to do it. That's what makes him one of the greatest players ever."
What awaits the Capitals in the second round amounts to a dream matchup for the NHL, its broadcasters and Washington fans with strong stomachs: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that has cut short so many Capitals postseason runs in the past.
The winning play began when Fedorov snagged the puck at the Capitals' blueline. With the swift stride of a man many years younger, he blasted through the neutral zone, forcing Rangers' defenseman Wade Redden to back off. Once Redden glided between Fedorov and Lundqvist, Fedorov ripped a shot past Lundqvist on the short side over his glove -- the same spot where they had beaten the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist so many times this season.
"It was a two on two in their zone," Fedorov said of his winner. "Not much else going, so I decided to shoot. I knew the defense was giving me short side, so I shot it top shelf."
It was Fedorov's first goal of these playoffs and the 52nd of his career in the postseason.
Fedorov wasn't the only hero for a Capitals team that had controlled the majority of the series' previous six games only to be outplayed through the first two periods of this one.
The Rangers outshot the Capitals in the first period but went into the second tied 1-1 thanks to a fluky goal by Semin and the outstanding play of rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov, who earned the first star of the game 24 hours after celebrating his 21st birthday. Varlamov, who has allowed just seven goals in six games, stopped 14 shots.
"The pressure is not really new for me," said Varlamov, who has competed on the international stage and in Russia's top league.
Boudreau added: "He is tremendously poised. I still haven't talked to him since Game 1. I don't want to screw him up, so I am just leaving him alone. With the way they were coming for the first two periods, for him to have the poise that he did, that was tremendous."
"I don't know what his stomach was doing," Boudreau added with a smile, "but he seemed really calm out there."
For most of the first 40 minutes, the Rangers put tremendous pressure on the Capitals defense and possessed the puck more than they had at any time in the previous six games. New York also beat them to loose pucks, won battles along the boards and dominated the neutral zone.
But, just as the Capitals have done so often this season, they turned things around in the third period, when the game -- and their season -- was on the line.
"I think we were a little upset with ourselves after the second period and came out in the third and reversed it," Green said. Boudreau "addressed what we needed to do, and finally we did it and it worked."
The Capitals were as good in the third period as they were uninspired in the first two.
Nik Antropov was stoned by Varlamov on a breakaway only 42 seconds into the game, but the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Russian made up for it about five minutes later when he fired a loose puck from point-blank range past Varlamov, who had lost his stick after contact with Brandon Dubinsky.
The Capitals continued to struggle, and in fact, didn't record their first shot on goal until the 13-minute mark. Their second shot, however, resulted in Semin's fifth goal of the series.
Washington was attacking on a three-on-two rush when Semin pulled the puck back and whipped it toward the net. It hit Ryan Callahan's stick and then Dan Girardi, completely fooling Lundqvist (22 saves) at 15:34.
The first period ended with the Rangers outshooting the Capitals, 8-2, and Boudreau berating his players behind the bench.
The fans grew antsy as the second period progressed. By the end of the middle session, which ended scoreless, the Capitals had trimmed the shot disparity to 14-11. But the Rangers seemed to be executing their game plan perfectly.
'That's what we talked about after the second period: we were right where we wanted to be," Rangers Coach John Tortorella said.
The Rangers took the game into the third period with the score tied at 1 and one of the world's elite goaltenders in their net. Everything seemed to be favoring the Rangers. But they didn't have Fedorov.
"I'm sure that any player can play in an atmosphere like that would enjoy it and play hard," Fedorov said of the ear-splitting cheering in the third period. "It was an amazing experience."