For almost 52 weeks, the Washington Capitals waited for their chance at redemption in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They believe this year’s squad is more unflappable than the one that grew frustrated a year ago, and Wednesday night at Verizon Center, in a game that unfolded in a manner eerily reminiscent of their postseason failure last spring, their first true test arrived.
They passed. After being unable to score for 53 minutes in Game 1 of their first-round series despite dominating play against the New York Rangers, the Capitals rallied to tie the game late in the third period to force overtime. Then, with 1 minute 36 seconds left in the extra session, Alexander Semin rifled a shot in to the upper left corner to give Washington a 2-1 victory.
The tight, low-scoring affair featured pressure on both Henrik Lundqvist (31 saves) and Michal Neuvirth (24) that mounted with each passing minute, and it may have been a preview of what’s to come in the series. Both the Capitals and Rangers take their defense seriously and neither allows a large number of goals on a consistent basis.
So if there is a lesson for Washington, which has scored only three goals in its last 13 periods against New York, it’s to take advantage of early chances in this series.
“If we hadn’t come out on top, we would have been in there saying that we had a great game and that we had to play the same way,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “If anything, it’s going to encourage the Rangers that they came into our building in the first game and played us shot for shot, hit for hit. But it’s a lot less tiring when you win; you’re a lot less exhausted.”
Semin’s game-winner was a welcome individual reprieve for the Russian winger, who hadn’t scored in the postseason in seven games – his last playoff goal came April 28, 2009 in Game 7 of Washington’s series against New York. Asked if it was the biggest moment of his postseason career, Semin made no such claim.
“This is only the beginning,” Semin said through an interpreter. “My biggest moment will be when we win the series.”
To reach Semin’s moment in the 79th minute of the contest, the Capitals first needed to overcome a one-goal deficit. The Rangers had withstood a Herculean push from Washington, with a sold-out Verizon Center reaching new decibel levels of fervor in the first half of the game, to chip away and finally seize a moment of their own.
After two periods of scoreless play, Matt Gilroy beat a screened Neuvirth for a 1-0 lead just 1:56 into the third.
The goal was deflating at least, and a demoralizing reminder of the style of game the Montreal Canadiens used to knock the Capitals out in the first round last year at worst. And it silenced the previously raucous crowd.
The Capitals prevented New York from expanding the advantage and began to take more risks in order to tie the game. Boudreau switched his lines up, put Ovechkin with Semin and gave his defensemen the go-ahead to jump up into the play. With just more than six minutes remaining in regulation, Ovechkin and Semin encroached on Lundqvist’s crease and whacked away at a loose puck near the Swedish netminder’s skates.
“I didn’t see the puck,” Ovechkin said. “I just try [to] hit something. It goes in, I didn’t see. I saw Sasha was like screaming ‘goal, goal,’ so I was excited and started celebrating.”
The play was reviewed by officials, but the marker ultimately stood as the puck crossed the goal line before the net was knocked off its moorings. The goal tied the game 13:44 into the third period and stood up to eventually prompt the marathon contest. It was a comeback in a tight game in which both Neuvirth and Lundqvist were superb, but where the Capitals couldn’t seem to catch a break as they rung at least three shots off the post.
Washington had carried the play for the majority of the first period, but it would conclude the opening 20 minutes with no tangible advantage over the Rangers, only a lead in energy and physicality.
Just past the five-minute mark, Neuvirth went from his right to his left to stretch for a toe save on Erik Christensen, but that was one of only a few significant saves he was required to make in the first half of the contest. Soon after the save, the Capitals went on a pair of power plays and would manufacture a plethora of chances, but several missed the mark or were blocked, and the others didn’t fool the goaltender nicknamed “King.”
Lundqvist got enough of a wide-open, one-timer from the high slot by Marco Sturm to send the puck into the netting above the glass, and he calmly snared a wrister from the left circle by Mike Green. The Capitals defenseman played 26:30 and recorded four shots in his first game back after missing 20 straight contests with a concussion he suffered on Feb. 25 when he was elbowed in the head by the Rangers’ Derek Stepan.
The pattern continued as shots — by Semin and Arnott — clanked off the crossbar only 18 seconds apart. Washington kept with the plan, though, and eventually managed to dent Lundqvist’s armor.
“I was pleased we got a goal,” Boudreau said. “At one point I didn’t know if there was ever going to be a way to beat that guy. Sometimes you need a greasy goal like [Ovechkin’s] to spark your team.”