Capitals Have Rangers Questioning Themselves

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

John Tortorella fairly seethed Friday night, ticking off the deficiencies of his New York Rangers. His best players, the coach said, were not performing like his best players. His power play was sloppy, inefficient and ugly. If the Rangers wanted to win their first-round playoff series over the Washington Capitals, things -- many things -- would have to change.

"Time is running out here," Tortorella said.

Finally, someone pointed out to Tortorella what should be the most salient fact of this series: Headed into this afternoon's Game 6, the Rangers still lead the Capitals, three games to two, in their best-of-seven series. It's just that, following Friday's dominant 4-0 Washington win, it doesn't quite feel that way.

"We survived another day," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. "They're still up, 3-2, but we're on our way back."

Momentum over the course of a seven-game series is impossible to quantify; Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said yesterday that it exists only in an individual game, that there's too much time to regroup after a loss for a team to sustain it. But after the Capitals skated yesterday at their Arlington training complex, they filtered into a locker room that was all but bubbly, a complete turnaround from the somber, serious tone in that very same room prior to Game 5. The circumstances, on paper, are still the same, because the Capitals can't afford even one misstep should they want to extend their season.

"I still think the pressure is on them," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said Friday night, "because I still think they're the better team."

Which was, of course, the case coming into the series. Lundqvist reminded those who may have forgotten, as the Rangers seized their commanding three-games-to-one lead, that the Capitals were the second seed in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers seventh. "We still have a chance to come back to New York and play a better game," Lundqvist said.

That, though, must start with Lundqvist, and his performance in Game 5 is perhaps the most significant reason some Capitals felt a shift in the dynamics of the series. For the first time in the playoffs, Lundqvist -- a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender -- looked not only beatable, but downright wobbly. Among his transgressions: a careless, between-his-pads goal to checking forward Matt Bradley that put the Capitals up 2-0 in the first, one of four goals Lundqvist allowed on 14 shots -- before he was benched for the third period.

Lundqvist -- who had a .946 save percentage in the first four games, a .714 percentage in Game 5 -- is no longer insurmountable, the Capitals said. Indeed, Washington's goalie, 20-year-old rookie Simeon Varlamov, now has more shutouts in this series (two) than Lundqvist (one).

"We saw that Lundqvist is human," Backstrom said. "That's good."

Tortorella, too, appeared human. The man who led Tampa Bay to the 2004 Stanley Cup and was hired in midseason to tweak the Rangers -- which he did successfully -- benched agitator Sean Avery prior to the fifth game, even though the silly penalties Avery had committed earlier in the series hadn't cost the Rangers a game. He then pulled Lundqvist for the third period -- "We were going nowhere," he said. He followed by having an implosion of his own, responding to the heckling of Washington fans by hurling a water bottle into the stands, then threatening them with one of his player's sticks. Last night, the NHL suspended him for Game 6.

"Good job by our fans," Capitals star winger Alex Ovechkin said. "Our fans are one more player when we play, one more player for us. They do what they have to do. They scream. They [are] loud. Yeah, maybe it was too much. . . . But sometimes, it happens."

That, then, puts further emphasis on the series' altered dynamics. "We obviously don't want to come back here," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. Allow the Capitals a victory today at Madison Square Garden, and that's exactly what would happen; a seventh and deciding game would be Tuesday night at Verizon Center.

"We're a desperate team," Ovechkin said. "We're losing, and we don't have an opportunity to make mistakes. You have to be all the time great. You have to be all the time 100 percent. We're still losing. It's going to be tomorrow, probably, the biggest game of our year."

Unless -- and until -- there is another game, which would bring the possibility of another series. For the Capitals, confidence is back, and headed into Game 6, they almost needed reminding that their situation remains dire.

"Our backs are against the wall," Boudreau said. "They still got one to give. We know every mistake can cost us the season. If you're going to sacrifice, and you don't normally sacrifice, you better sacrifice now."

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