Throughout the postseason it has been the character guys, role players, the pluggers and, as they’re known in the Washington Capitals’ dressing room, the “wagons” who have stepped up on a consistent basis. Saturday afternoon in a pivotal Game 4 contest against the New York Rangers, it was the top half of the lineup that took charge and led the Capitals to a much-needed victory.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green all scored in Washington’s 3-2 win at Verizon Center that evened this Eastern Conference semifinal series at two games apiece.
It marked the first time since Oct. 30, 2010, at Calgary that those three of the four “Young Guns” had scored in the same game, and the combined effort couldn’t have come at a better time. The Capitals needed the win not only to tie the series, but to bounce back collectively after a gut-wrenching triple overtime loss in Game 3 on Wednesday.
“Young guns? Not so young anymore. But we needed to step up,” said Green, whose tally on the power play came 14 minutes 12 seconds into the third period and stood as the game-winner. “It was important that we got a win tonight here in our building and that it be the guys that need to start scoring. Alex is one of them. Myself and Nicky. So it was good.”
From the start it was clear that the Capitals’ star players were ready for the challenge of sending the series back to New York tied. When Jason Chimera drew an interference call on defenseman Anton Stralman less than three minutes into the contest, the Capitals’ power play buzzed and their best players were at the forefront.
Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves) made six stops during Washington’s man advantage, a few of them stunning. Ovechkin had a backdoor redirect attempt that required perhaps the save of the series, and then the Capitals peppered Lundqvist with three attempts — Alexander Semin from point-blank range, Backstrom from the circle and Green from the point — in nine seconds.
While the all-star netminder turned those opportunities aside with relative ease, Washington’s forwards continued to swarm around him. After a lengthy battle in the corner, the puck popped out to New York rookie Chris Kreider, but he subsequently gave it away to Ovechkin.
Washington’s star left wing took one step toward the center of the ice and ripped a booming slap shot from a few feet inside the blue line. The puck bounced over Lundqvist’s glove and in for Ovechkin’s fourth goal of the postseason to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead at 12:43. Washington is 6-1 in this year’s playoffs when scoring first.
Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green combined for seven of the Capitals’ 14 shots on goal in the first period. Even in those early stages, the play of Washington’s thoroughbreds was noticeable to the rest of the group.
“You see just the way they’re handling the puck, passing the puck,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “They just show a ton of confidence. They always have confidence, but they take it to that next level.”
New York responded swiftly at the start of the second as Artem Anisimov scored 70 seconds in to make it 1-1.
Although the Capitals looked sluggish early in the second — the Rangers outshot them 6-0 in the first 9:30 — they withstood that flurry and answered by regaining the lead after killing a holding penalty to Joel Ward.
Backstrom knocked over Anisimov in the corner to send the Rangers’ defense scrambling and made his way into the slot. When Backstrom arrived in front of the net, Chimera fed him the puck from the left wall, and the top-line center rifled a shot over Lundqvist’s shoulder into the top left corner of the net. The tally put Washington ahead 2-1 at 11:54 and marked Backstrom’s first goal since his second-overtime tally in the second game against Boston last round.
“People, I guess, has been talking about it — that we need to step up,” Backstrom said, adding that it’s impossible to entirely ignore the pressure to produce. “You feel a little bit and you can’t think about it too much. You’ve just got to go out and play, same way as you always have. I’ve been thinking about it a little bit, for sure.”
Twenty-three seconds later, Ovechkin delivered a crushing open-ice hit on Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. Ovechkin, who received a minor penalty for charging on the play, left his feet, but the head did not appear to be the principal point of contact. It was unclear whether Ovechkin, a repeat offender, would receive any discipline from the NHL.
At 16:43 of the second, Marian Gaborik made it 2-2 after a miscommunication between Jeff Schultz and Dennis Wideman on a waved-off icing call. The score remained tied well into the third period, but Washington received a power play when rookie Carl Hagelin slashed John Carlson with 6:15 to go.
With plenty of space on the right-hand side of the ice, Green walked in from the blue line, and when he reached the top of the circle he sent a blistering slap shot through Lundqvist’s pads to make it 3-2 at 14:12.
After Green’s tally, Washington ensured the game wouldn’t reach overtime. The Capitals allowed only two shots to reach rookie goaltender Braden Holtby (18 saves) and blocked six others as time ticked down. It was a necessary win for Washington, and one that it might not have achieved without its best players rising to the challenge.
“We just have to score more goals than our opponents. It was very important game for both team,” Ovechkin said. “We’re pretty happy, we take this. Right spot and right time. Right now series is tied. We’re going to New York and gonna win this game over there.”