The Washington Capitals knew they would need to withstand a push from the New York Rangers on Friday night in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. The Rangers started quickly as expected, though it appeared they weren’t prepared to handle the Capitals’ counterpunch.
After the Rangers’ strong start, the Capitals answered with a second-period surge that featured goals less than two minutes apart from Jason Chimera and Jason Arnott to propel them to a 2-0 win at Verizon Center.
Goaltender Michal Neuvirth made 22 saves to earn his first career postseason shutout. He has stopped all but one of the 47 shots he has faced in his first pair of games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The victory gives Washington a two-games-to-none lead as the best-of-seven series shifts to Madison Square Garden. It’s only the second time Washington has held a 2-0 edge in a series under Coach Bruce Boudreau; the first was in 2009 in a seven-game loss to Pittsburgh in the second round.
In Stanley Cup playoff history, teams holding a 2-0 series advantage have been eliminated only 41 of 307 times (13.4 percent). Those odds don’t provide significant to the Capitals, however.
“We can enjoy [the win] for 20 minutes, but then we keep going,” Chimera said. “We have to keep pushing. By no means is it done. When the hammer’s down, you gotta keep on going. They can easily steal two there and come back and tie it.”
Already it’s clear that much of this series will hinge on the goaltenders. Friday, the Capitals’ rookie outdueled New York’s all-star veteran. Henrik Lundqvist made 16 saves but Neuvirth stood up to make sure Washington wouldn’t need to come from behind against a hungry Rangers squad.
The 23-year-old Czech allowed few rebounds despite earnest efforts by the Rangers to crowd the crease and dig in his pads for the puck, and he received help from his defense when it came to clearing pucks out of harm’s way. It was the type of showing Washington needed, particularly in the first period as New York tried to rattle the Capitals with physical play and fire as many pucks as it could on Neuvirth.
Neuvirth was “just rock-solid, played real well — just calm. He’s taken the leadership role of a top-end goaltender,” Arnott said. “He comes to the rink every day with a smile and is real calm for a young guy. It’s pretty incredible, but we’re relying on him to make big saves and he’s relying on us to clear pucks away.”
The Rangers spent the opening five minutes in their offensive zone and tried to create as much commotion as possible around Neuvirth. Neuvirth said the early work helped him focus and that the Rangers’ attempts to fluster him are simply part of the job.
“This is the playoffs, it’s a lot of pressure on everyone. Scrums around the net, like I said, it’s the playoffs and for me, I gotta handle this stuff,” Neuvirth said. “They were coming pretty hard at us and my defense — they did an outstanding job tonight.”
Washington gradually began to emerge from its own end but what dominated the tenor of the first period – and the game – was the number and frequency of shoulder-crunching, board-rattling hits. From a check by Brooks Laich near the benches that sent the Rangers’ Sean Avery flying sideways to a shift in which Alex Ovechkin blasted Brandon Prust only to be tossed aside by the larger Brian Boyle (6 feet 7, 244 pounds) a few seconds later. There were 29 hits through 20 minutes and 73 by the end of the contest.
The first period was arguably the first in five periods that the Rangers had outplayed Washington, but the trend didn’t continue.
The Capitals answered with a forceful start to the second, driven by heavy forechecking and pressure that seemed to catch New York by surprise. Washington’s third line gave a textbook example of how to outwork a foe on a tic-tac-toe play to put the Capitals up 1-0 at 2 minutes 11 seconds. It began with Laich being shoved into the net yet still managing to make a one-handed pass to Marcus Johansson, whose pass to the slot was perfectly timed for Chimera to rip a shot into the net.
Washington didn’t stop there. The goal ratcheted up the Capitals’ intensity as the fourth line, on the shift immediately following the opening goal, hemmed the Rangers deep in their own end again and drew an interference penalty on New York’s Ryan McDonagh.
“We just stuck with our system and kept playing the way we have been as of late, which is important for this team,” Arnott said. “We can’t stray or get frustrated at certain things. We know their goaltending is phenomenal and they work as hard as any team in the league. We can’t take them for granted.”
The Capitals’ power play has been far from reliable over the course of the 2010-11 season and opened the playoffs 0 for 3, but the surge in momentum appeared to be wearing the Rangers down. A shot by Mike Green redirected off Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy and skipped directly to Arnott, whose shot from the left circle beat Lundqvist high as he slid across the goal mouth to make it 2-0 just past the four-minute mark.
In a span of 1:57, Washington had thoroughly taken control of the contest and sent the Rangers reeling with only its second power-play goal in its last nine periods of postseason play. The Rangers didn’t manage a shot on goal until a wrister by Ruslan Fedotenko at 10:45.
“It’s a valuable lesson,” Rangers Coach John Tortorella said. “We had some turnovers. It caused the momentum change right away in the second period. For about five or six minutes there they surged on us. . . . We got hurt by a surge tonight.”