NEW YORK — Amid the emptiness of the visitors’ dressing room at Madison Square Garden, equipment bags already packed and loaded for the flight home, the Washington Capitals took a mallet to their 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers and reassembled the scraps into the bigger picture.
They had slogged through another dismal matinee start, falling behind before the final seats filled. Their penalty kill, perfect through eight outings, had buckled for the first time this postseason. Afterward, their coach called them undeserving “to win this hockey game, plain and simple,” the most damning of Barry Trotz’s critiques.
And yet as the Capitals digested Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals — as goaltender Braden Holtby recalled the game-winner that trickled between his legs, forward Alex Ovechkin discussed his latest marriage of brute force and brilliance and forward Jason Chimera felt “haunted” by these matinee messes — optimism somehow prevailed. They return to the District with the series knotted at one game apiece. Home-ice advantage still sat in their pockets.
“We knew the Rangers were going to come with a very high degree of desperation, and they did,” Trotz said. “We just didn’t handle it as well as we needed to.”
For Trotz and his players, the long march began during the first period, when only 38 seconds passed before the blue-clad fans, who had slunk away stunned by Joel Ward’s buzzer-beater in Game 1 on Thursday night, erupted. The one mountain left unclimbed for the Capitals was these vexing brunch starts, so Trotz took the unusual approach of canceling practice Friday. They seemed loose, but they understood the challenge confronting the Rangers.
After all, they had been in this position during the first round, fighting uphill after squandering home-ice advantage in Game 1 against the New York Islanders, needing a furious comeback at Verizon Center to equalize the Eastern Conference quarterfinals before hitting the road. They expected New York to harbor a similar fury. It turned into a brutal lesson.
A long stretch pass flopped into Washington’s zone and reached Holtby, who kicked the puck harmlessly away into the left faceoff circle, then deflected forward Jesper Fast’s backdoor cut outside the blue paint. But with Holtby committed to the right post, forward Chris Kreider dashed ahead and punched the puck into the empty net. Holtby had no other recourse but flopping onto his side, flailing his stick as a last-ditch effort and watching the icebreaker zip into the net.
Later in the period, with Ward shelved for hooking, the Capitals’ penalty kill finally cracked after snuffing 17 straight shorthanded sequences during the postseason. Forward Troy Brouwer’s clear attempt rimmed around the boards and deflected off an official’s arm, bouncing to defenseman Dan Boyle, who waited inside the blue line. Boyle controlled the puck, wheeled and hammered it toward the net, where forward Rick Nash had hopped around Karl Alzner and leapt to avoid the shot, which struck the top-left corner.
“Anytime you get down in an opposing barn, you’re fighting an uphill battle,” Chimera said. “You’re trying to press for goals. You’re fighting it from there. That’s a big killer.”
Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, the breakout star with three goals in the first round, briefly lugged the Capitals within one with a follow-up effort on Chimera’s initial attempt after Kuznetsov won a defensive-zone draw and dumped the puck off the back boards.
Early in the third period, though, the Capitals’ rally hit the skids. Ten seconds after an eventless power play ended, Derick Brassard found himself alone on the doorstep, somehow having snuck past two white sweaters with no additional bouncer in sight. As Holtby felt the puck trickle between his legs, bouncing off both thighs, he rocked his head back, admitting he had been beat.
“Just a strange play,” Holtby said. “I was trying to be patient, and he changed his angle a little bit, and I had to move and opened up just above my pants, the five-hole. . . . Just a tiny, split second too late.”
It was a helpless feeling, not unlike what New York’s Henrik Lundqvist faced when Ovechkin steamed into the Rangers’ zone, swarmed by defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, preparing to leave Madison Square Garden breathless. In Game 1, the hot microphones had caught Ovechkin taunting Lundqvist by saying, “All series, baby.” His third-period laser, which brought the score to its final margin, justified the hubris. As Ovechkin squeezed past McDonagh and Girardi, he stumbled onto his stomach and slid across the ice but somehow whipped the puck into the top-left corner.
“Big-time goal,” Trotz said, though it became Washington’s last gasp. Lundqvist stood strong through 102 seconds of an empty net and finished with 30 saves, two fewer than Holtby. At the final horn, with no magic miracle for the Capitals to be found this time, Lundqvist rose and pumped his blocker pad, sparking the celebration. They will reconvene Monday in Chinatown, each three wins away from advancing to the conference finals.
“We were probably kidding ourselves if we thought this was going to be a short series,” Holtby said. “We’re prepared for the long haul.”