NEW YORK – The question was: Would the Washington Capitals wake up before the dinner hour? They were late sleepers, still rolling out of bed when the New York Rangers scored their first goal, and their doziness cost them something precious — a chance to get the upper hand over the Rangers and make this Eastern Conference playoff series something other than a protracted siege.
The Capitals fell, 3-2, and they can’t say they didn’t know what was coming. Coach Barry Trotz told them, warned them of what to expect from a Rangers team still furious that it surrendered Game 1 to a buzzer-beater. They knew they would have to take a counterpunch, knew they would have to deal with the ratcheting of intensity in Madison Square Garden, the thrumming techo-rock that made the inner ear vibrate, and the crowd waving in royal blue and chanting “Ovi sucks!” As Trotz said, “You’re going to see their absolute best, just because of desperation factor.”
He not only begged them to “match that desperation and commitment and urgency”; he even bribed them with a day off. The Caps never saw the ice between late Thursday night, when Joel Ward scored the stunner with 1.3 seconds left in Game 1, and brunch time Saturday morning, because Trotz wanted them rested. He figured they were still drained and needed a recharge more than they needed to practice for Saturday’s game, which started at 12:30 p.m. just as the morning sun crossed the middle of the sky.
It took only 38 seconds for the Rangers to confirm Trotz’ worst fears. While the Caps were still stretching and yawning, the Rangers were sending flocks of players at the goal. Chris Kreider breezed in front of Braden Holtby and flicked in the puck before the coffee had settled in your stomach.
The Rangers went on to outshoot the Capitals 15-4 in the first period, and on every charge up the ice they seemed to have separation. “They had the speed game going; they had the rushes,” Alex Ovechkin said. But more than just beat them to every spot, they outfought them for every position and every puck. “They were winning all the races, all the one-on-one battles,” Trotz said.
There went Ovechkin, thrown down by Marc Staal and twirling across the ice like a starfish. There went Nicklas Backstrom, lifted up and deposited on his rear pads. Even on a rare Ovechkin scoring chance, the Rangers seemed to get the best of the exchange. The game was about five minutes old when Ovechkin blasted a short shot at the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, who made a leaping glove save. Ovechkin skidded into Dan Girardi, who used the opportunity to deck him under the chin, and then Kreider reached an arm around his neck and put him in an absolute chokehold.
“Our physical game was not that level that we wanted,” Ovechkin said.
The shame of it was that if the Caps had simply gotten going a little earlier, they might have stolen this game and returned to Washington with a 2-0 lead. Because when the Caps decided to finally enter the building, they did so like a rush of wind.
When Evgeny Kuznetsov took a rebound and whammed it past Lundqvist to cut the score in half, 2-1, at 13:50 of the second period, it seemed to touch off the sense of fury that Trotz had vainly hoped they would bring in the first place. Lundqvist would have to make 30 stops before the game was over, at times looking more like a karate fighter than a goalie.
Even when Derrick Brassard’s gyroscopic third-period goal set them two goals back again at 3-1, the Caps continued to storm at the opposing net with an intensity that made you feel something more was bound to happen. And it did. Ovechkin fought through the Rangers’ two top defenders, Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, and as he was falling to the ice he lashed out his stick and sent the puck past Lundqvist. “Trying to do something, make a move, get a shot,” he said. It was an epic individual play, but more importantly it was a message sender. There has been an energy to Ovechkin in this postseason, a refusal to be smothered or discouraged. “All series, baby, all series,” he had taunted Lundqvist in Game 1.
“Ovi’s a big-time player and sometimes it’s not what you get; it’s what you leave. He’s leaving an impression on them,” Trotz said.
What it said was, “They’re going to push back,” as the Rangers’ Brassard said. And they did. The last couple of minutes were terrifying for the Rangers, as Lundqvist had to fend off a hail of shots. “They were coming at us with every move they had,” Rangers Coach Alain Vigneault said.
All of that action only served to make that dawdling first period all the more regrettable. If the Caps have a flaw, it’s that they seem to move to their own clock. They are a drowsy bunch in first periods, no matter what the time of day. In the last round, they fell behind by 1-0 in five of seven games against the New York Islanders.
Their habit of starting slow is inexplicable in a team that is otherwise viscerally on the verge of being great. They have all the qualities, both physicality and flash. But the truly great teams, the ones who advance past the second round, also have a sense of opportunism. This was an opportunity lost. Since 2009, the Rangers and the Caps have met each other in the playoffs four times, and three of those series went seven games. This one will now go at least five.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.