For over 50 minutes on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center, many probably thought they were watching a repeat of last season’s playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens. The Rangers were leading 1-0 and the Caps, who carried much of the play in this contest, hit the iron three times, had Nicklas Backstrom stopped on a breakaway, and generated several other quality chances that were thwarted by New York’s outstanding goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist (31 saves). But this year’s Washington Capitals team is more experienced and resilient, and Alexander Ovechkin scored a gritty goal to tie the game with 6:16 to go in regulation and then after Jason Arnott intercepted a Marc Staal clearing attempt and fed #28 the biscuit, Alexander Semin (1 goal, 1 assist) rifled a one-timed laser by Lundqvist to give the Caps a 2-1 victory 18:24 into overtime. The Capitals jump out to a quick 1-0 lead in this best of seven game series with the second tilt scheduled for Friday night at the Verizon Center at 7:30 pm.
“It was an important game for everybody, I think. I think we started well, we have a couple opportunities to score goals, I hit the crossbar two times, we missed a breakaway, but we make one mistake in our zone and they use it. It’s playoffs and [we] don’t give up, we play hard and we score some dirty goal, but it is what it is,” summarized the Great #8 when asked about the importance of this victory.
Below are the rest of highlights, quotes, and analysis of the 102nd consecutive home sellout for Washington:
– As has been chronicled fairly well, the Capitals changed their system in December to be better able to handle playoff hockey. After their first post season outing, suffice it to say that this team is significantly better than last year’s crew despite narrowly squeaking out a win. The Caps didn’t panic when Matt Gilroy scored from the slot after John Erskine and Mike Green were both beaten behind the Caps cage, which allowed Wojtek Wolski to slide the puck to #97 for a goal that Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth (24 saves) had little chance of stopping, just 1:56 into the third period. Shortly thereafter, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau felt that he needed to switch the lines up to get the equalizer and he put Ovechkin out with Semin. After a super feed from Green from Washington’s own end, Ovechkin took the puck to the cage bowling over Blueshirt defensemen Dan Girardi en route, and that allowed he and Semin to whack away at the biscuit until it slid through King Henrik’s legs. Because Staal knocked the net off right after the puck went in, there was a lengthy review but the goal stood and a nervous and somewhat quiet Verizon Center erupted.
– This was exactly the type of game I was expecting to begin this series. There wasn’t much room out on the ice and both teams worked hard to minimize any defensive breakdowns. Both squads back checked well with the Capitals doing an outstanding job of not giving the Rangers forwards time and space. They had the one breakdown on the Rangers goal and the only other big gaffe came in period two when Marian Gaborik was all alone at the top of the crease but Neuvirth came up with a timely save to keep the game scoreless. Other than that, the two players who are highly skilled on New York, Gaborik and Vinny Prospal, didn’t have opportunities to hurt the Capitals like they’ve done in the past. These type of games are highly competitive and stressful but you can bet that every one from here on out will likely be played the same way.
“I think it’s going to be games like that the whole series,” added Ovechkin on the style of play.
– The Rangers are a very physical team and Coach John Tortorella does an excellent job of getting his players in the right spots to pressure the puck. A team that is weak up the middle of the ice likely would crumble but since the Capitals acquired Arnott to play second line center they have drastically improved their club. Backstrom, #44, and Marcus Johansson played a major role in this victory by helping out the Caps blue line in getting pucks out of Washington’s own zone and then moving it in transition. #19 hounded the puck all night and even though he didn’t get a point, his strong play helped wear out the Rangers defensive crew, particularly their top pair of Staal and Girardi, who logged 33:48 and 32:50, respectively. Those two guys were very tired and fatigue leads to mental mistakes. That is what caused the Staal giveaway to Arnott on the game winning sequence.
– On the Washington blue line, getting #52 back makes a huge difference as the Capitals have someone else, along with the John Carlson-Karl Alzner duo, to move the puck up the ice quickly. Green played a very solid 26:30 in his first action since February 25th, when he was injured against the Rangers. The Caps blue line is deeper than New York’s and as a result, the highest ice time of any defender for Washington was Scott Hannan at 28:39. The rest of the defensive crew had pretty balanced time on ice with Jeff Schultz at 27:49, Carlson with 26:19, Alzner logging 23:42, and Erskine playing 19:18. This was one of Sarge’s (#55) best games of the season and he blocked six shots. #27 led Washington with eight blocks in another strong outing. The fact that New York relied so heavily on one defensive pair while Boudreau was able to spread the wealth bodes well for the Caps as we move to game two.
“I thought his first period might have been as good as he has played in a playoff game. I thought it was outstanding for a guy that hasn’t played in six weeks to come back in a game like that,” added Boudreau on the play of #52.
– #30 was superb in net. In addition to the big save on Gaborik, he made an early important one against Erik Christensen. Neuvirth, who is a fierce competitor as evidenced by his 14 for 14 playoff series record in North America, did a super job of not allowing rebounds and he was very good at covering the puck for a defensive zone faceoff when the Caps were near the end of a shift. Lundqvist was really good, but so was the young Czech goalie.
“He was fine. Very calm and very focused on the puck and in the game. In the second period, they have great opportunities to score goal and he made [a] huge save [to] keep us in the game after two periods. Again, I think both goalies played very well,” commented Oveckhin on the goaltending in game one.
– Semin (+2), who scored in the playoffs for the first time in 14 games (last one came in game 7 in 2009 vs. the Rangers), played like a man intent on showing how badly he wants to win. He logged 22:15 and never appeared to let up. Afterwards, Boudreau talked about how important #28 is to Washington’s post season success.
“For our team, well we are not getting anywhere without Alex Semin scoring. You just look at the regular season, Ovie got 32, he got 27, and Mike [Knuble] got 24 and then after that it drops off. We need him to go to create that other offensive threat and I thought the [game winning] shot, I could barely see it, and Arnott made a great play to keep it in, and [Semin] didn’t hesitate, he just shot it,” said Boudreau on Semin and the winning tally.
Ovechkin was asked afterwards what he said to his very good friend Semin out on the ice after he scored, but the Great #8 couldn’t get over in time to talk with Sasha. The reason for that was the quote of the night from the Great #8.
“Well, I was stuck on the bench, my laces were stuck. I tried jumping and I was stuck. It’s a huge goal for whole team. We are all happy for Sasha [Alexander Semin] because last year he was little bit upset he didn’t score a goal and right now it’s very important for him to score a goal, step-up and show his leadership. It doesn’t matter who score right now, it’s all about winning and character and see how good this group is right now,” concluded Ovechkin on the winning goal and the focus of the team he captains.
– In closing for tonight, the Capitals have an advantage in this series if they can continue to dump the puck deep and wear out the Rangers defense. New York is a hard working team but they don’t possess big speed issues for Washington, which is more vulnerable to that type of style with Dennis Wideman out for at least the first round. Getting Green back and unharmed was very important. Going forward the Capitals have to keep their focus, be mentally tough no matter the score of the game, and play one shift at at time. They stuck to the process in game one, now they need to do it again on Friday night.
Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 43-37. Brooks Laich was 13-5 and Boyd Gordon won 8 out of 12 draws…both teams went 0 for 2 on the power play. Ovechkin took a roughing penalty late in regulation but the Caps killed it, with Laich blocking a huge point shot on one sequence…the Caps outhit the Rangers, 35-31, in a physical hockey game.