So much for being the favorite. So much for momentum. So much for never having been behind in any playoff game this season. So much for the home ice advantage. So long, it's been good to know you.
The Washington Capitals, who hadn't lost in overtime in 11 tries this season, opened up the divisional final round of the playoffs by losing in overtime to the New York Rangers, who hadn't won in overtime in 13 tries this season. Finding themselves suddenly thrust in the unfamiliar position of being the clear favorite in a playoff series, the Capitals most uncharacteristically blew a 3-1 lead and lost, 4-3, to the team that finished 20th out of 21 teams in the NHL in scoring. Four goals are a week's worth to the Rangers. The Rangers are not supposed to score four goals in any game, let alone a playoff game, let alone a playoff game on the road against the NHL's second-best defense. Bob Gould said the Capitals suffered "a mental breakdown." Mike Gartner described the Capitals as "like in an ozone layer out there -- just floating." Cut the chatter, sweetheart, get me Alfred Hitchcock.
"I suppose you'd have to consider the Capitals the favorites in this -- they scored 29 more points than the Rangers this season," Phil Esposito, the NHL's second all-time leading goal scorer turned Rangers TV commentator, said before the game. "But this is the playoffs. I know it's an old cliche, but it's true: In the playoffs anything can happen." For proof of that you need look no further than the first round of the playoffs, where three division champions were unceremoniously ousted -- Chicago, by Toronto; Quebec, by Hartford; Philadelphia, by the Rangers. "All you need is a hot goaltender," Esposito said. "If he can make the big saves for you, you can win. During the season the goaltender doesn't matter as much, because even if one guy gets hot, most teams alternate anyway. But in the playoffs if a guy can stand on his head, he can take everybody with him." Ask the Flyers about John Vanbiesbrouck. Send the mail care of the gulag where they're watching the rest of the playoffs on tape delay. The Rangers' goalie did more than just stand on his head, he stood the Flyers on their ears, stopping an average of 30 shots per game.
The Capitals countered with a hot goalie of their own in Pete Peeters, who had shut the Islanders down in three straight games. But Peeters hadn't beaten the Rangers in three tries this season and had given up 15 goals along the rutted road. "Don't get me wrong, he's a wonderful goalie against everyone else in the league," Esposito said of Peeters. "But quite frankly I think he's susceptible to the Rangers. Or is the word, accessible? He doesn't play well against the Rangers." Peeters didn't play poorly last night, but he didn't make as many saves, nor were they as quick, as athletic looking or as critical as Vanbiesbrouck's.
Vanbiesbrouck was scraped for two goals in the Capitals first 10 shots, three in their first 18. But from then on, for almost 35 minutes, Vanbiesbrouck was as tough to cut as week-old bread. "We had opportunities to bury them," said Larry Murphy. "And we didn't."
The Capitals let the Rangers back into the game late in the second period when they couldn't get organized on a power play and yielded a shorthanded goal to Mark Osborne just 10 seconds into a penalty to Tomas Sandstrom. That cut the Capitals' lead to 3-2, and from then on the Rangers -- contrary to the notion that they would be tired after their grueling five-game exchange with the Flyers -- seemed clearly the more enthusiastic, more opportunistic team. In the overtime, when teams usually come out flying, the Capitals had vapor lock. The Rangers needed only one shot and one minute and 16 seconds to end the suspense.
It's not a tragedy losing the first game of a best-of-seven series; someone has to do it. It's not like the Rangers haven't beaten the Capitals this season, although they haven't with Al Jensen in goal for Washington. And it's not like the home ice advantage is that big a deal. Since 1972, in the 18 playoff series that have gone the full seven games, the home team has won the seventh game nine times, and so has the visiting team. The Rangers, by the way, were involved in one of those series, and for you historical precedent watchers, they lost. On the road. Which is where the seventh game, if there is a seventh game, will be played.