“You’ve got to forget this one pretty quickly, take some positives,” forward Jason Chimera said. “You come in here, you want to get a split, obviously. If you lose the first one, you want to win the second one. It’s nice to get a split here and get home ice again, but we’ve got to take advantage of home ice again.”
Little about the eventual result, which pivoted on Derick Brassard’s third-period goal jabbed between goaltender Braden Holtby’s legs, surprised the Capitals, given their sluggish first period. Chris Kreider struck at the 38-second mark, dashing into the crease and punching back a rebound, and with less than five minutes until intermission, defenseman Dan Boyle became the first to score against Washington’s penalty kill in the playoffs.
But between forward Evgeny Kuznetsov’s fourth goal of the postseason, another how-in-the-hell-did-he-do-that blast from captain Alex Ovechkin and a third period – save Brassard’s goal – spent knocking on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s doorstep, the Capitals scrounged enough positivity to carry them on the quick flight home. With at least three games remaining, that would suffice for now.
“We were chasing the game,” defenseman Matt Niskanen. “We were slow-moving in the first, then we gradually got our game going, and it was probably pretty good the second half of the game. We gave ourselves a chance at that end.”
Niskanen perhaps took the defeat hardest, reflecting on Brassard’s goal when he and forward Jay Beagle tried intercepting a centering pass and instead struck sticks, allowing the puck to slip through. But even Niskanen found resolve in the big picture. “We screwed it up,” he said, before chalking the bounce up to sheer misfortune. “Tight games like that, those are some of the ones you can’t really worry about that kind of stuff…it happens.”
A bigger concern, albeit no longer for this series with the start times already set, came with more afternoon struggles. The Rangers had no issue using their speed to weave around the Capitals during the first period, even after Kreider sparked an early celebration. They generated odd-man rushes and turned Saturday into a matinee track meet.
“I think the main thing is we might’ve had to do with getting down, we played into their game a little bit,” Holtby said. “They’re fine with giving up one Grade-A if they get three in the other end. And we play a game where we want to really play heavy below their goal line, generate our goals, maybe not through typical Grade-A chances but through screens. If we play that way, we’ll be successful. I think we just got away from it tonight.”
At the very least, Ovechkin emerged on a mission, finishing with nine hits and 11 shot attempts, none more thunderous than when he stormed between two New York defensemen, lost his footing and, while falling, somehow fired the puck over goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s shoulder. Midway through the third period, the Capitals had climbed back within one goal on Ovechkin’s fourth of the playoffs and second this series, but came no closer.
“I think we match up fairly well,” Trotz said. “I think there are some things they do extremely well, some things we can do better, and if we do that, who knows. This series can turn on a dime sometimes. But I think the two teams that are pretty evenly matched and it’ll be interesting coming back in our building.”
Before the first round, Trotz and the Capitals had seemed so assured that they and the Islanders would advance to seven games, that their Eastern Conference quarterfinals would only be decided at the 11th hour. They abstained from such rhetoric before facing the Presidents’ Trophy winners but, after two back-and-forth games at Madison Square Garden, each won by one goal by a different team, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to start suggesting it now too.
“I think both teams are pretty evenly matched,” Trotz said. “I think it has the potential, absolutely.”