A year ago in the first round of the playoffs, the Washington Capitals outplayed the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 but lost the deciding game on a power play goal in overtime, falling 3-2 at Verizon Center.
Tuesday night in the same building, the Caps were outplayed, outhustled and out-everything’d for 40 minutes by the New York Rangers and – many will say – weren’t the better team over the entire 60 minutes. Like last year’s result, though, the better team didn’t win Game 7, as Washington put together a memorable 20 minutes of refuse-to-quit hockey when it counted most, limiting the Rangers to one shot on goal in the final stanza and winning 2-1 on a Sergei Federov goal with less than five minutes remaining in regulation.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t, in all fairness, a very good performance by the Caps.
But they’re moving on and the Rangers are going home. As they say in golf when you hit a couple of bad shots but still make par on the hole — “there aren’t any pictures on the scorecard…just numbers.” The Caps won’t want to make Game 7 part of their team highlight film – Federov’s goal an exception, perhaps – but playoff hockey is about survive and advance and that’s what Washington did on Tuesday night.
After sleepwalking through the first two periods, the Caps turned in their best period of post-season hockey in the final 20 minutes, outworking the Rangers at both ends and producing several glorious scoring chances that were thwarted by New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Alex Ovechkin, again held without a goal for the 4th time in the 7-game series, ripped a shot into Lundqvist with 13 minutes remaining that represented his best opportunity of the game. It was another odd night for “The Great 8″, who seemed more intent on delivering hits than producing scoring chances. Still, he was far more active and pesky in the final period – as just about everyone in red was, for that matter – and the Rangers spent a lot of time and energy making sure Ovie didn’t beat them on Tuesday night.
Washington’s best offensive player on Tuesday was Alexander Semin, who scored the team’s first goal on a fluky bounce but otherwise generated several quality scoring chances and was the one Washington offensive player who apparently got the memo that the game actually started at 7:05 pm, not 8:35 pm.
The sub-story to Tuesday night’s game was that both teams played hockey and the fans were treated to an up and down brand of hockey that would be easily marketable despite the fact that only three goals were scored in 60 minutes. There were three total penalties – Washington had only one trip to the sin-bin – and both teams seemed dedicated to not having dumb penalties decide their Game 7 fate. It was a pleasure to watch, even if the Caps couldn’t match New York’s energy for the first 40 minutes.
On the whole, Washington’s 7-game triumph hinged largely on Bruce Boudreau’s decision to boot veteran goaltender Jose Theodore after his Game 1 nightmare and insert the rookie – Simeon Varlamov – for the final 6 games of the series. Varlamov’s stellar play turned out to be even more important when Ovechkin (3 goals), Mike Green (1 goal) and Nicklas Backstrom (0 goals) generated only four goals between them in 420 minutes of hockey.
And, on Tuesday night, with their season in the balance and a crushing home loss in Game 7 on the horizon, the Caps dug down for a special 20-minutes of hockey that accented the difference between the two teams. Washington never gave up in the series, even after falling behind 2-games-to-0 and 3-games-to-1, and they didn’t give up on Tuesday night when it looked like New York just plain “wanted it more”.
The Caps might not have all the ingredients for a championship team this spring, but they produced a championship period of hockey when they needed it most on Tuesday night.
It was, without question, a period of attonement. Their 3rd period play not only rescued them from a listless first 40 minutes, but it helped close the wounds of 2008 when they outplayed the Flyers but fell in Game 7 on the Joffrey Lupul overtime goal.
With the Game 7 shocker in New Jersey on Tuesday night (Carolina scored twice in the final 1:20 of regulation to beat the best goaltender ever and advance to take on the Bruins), Washington now faces Pittsburgh in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
There’s plenty of time to preview that series. For now, let’s take a night to enjoy Washington’s dramatic series comeback and Tuesday’s thriller over the Rangers.
It’s not often you get to spend a few minutes in a “New York state of mind” that you actually like…so let’s enjoy it.