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Caps 3, Rangers 1: Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. The Caps couldn’t have asked for a better start to their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers. They dominated play for the first 20 minutes, fell behind 1-0 anyway, but regrouped with three second-period goals to take control of an eventual 3-1 victory.

That gives Washington a 1-0 series lead with Game 2 set for Verizon Center on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. Nothing’s guaranteed. New York won Game 1 between the two teams last spring by two goals and it eventually won in seven games, including a triple-overtime win in the District and an improbable late comeback in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.  It could have easily gone the other way. This series could flip on a dime, too.

“The momentum is gonna change so many times in the series,” Washington forward Martin Erat said. “But it’s how you come out of it that’s what’s gonna make the difference.”

But there was plenty to like about this Caps’ performance. From the strong start – 12 of the first 13 shots on goal in the game – to the comeback, to their patience on the power play.

 2. The NHL’s best power play was 0-for-3 to start Thursday, an ominous start reminiscent of playoff failures past. But the Capitals possess an unwavering confidence they didn’t have even in their glory days three, four and five years ago.

So even as the Rangers generated scoring chances of their own while down a man, Washington figured if given enough chances it would break through. That finally happened at 6:59 of the first period and Alex Ovechkin was the man to do it.

The Rangers do as good a job as any team in the NHL at blocking shots. The Caps needed to find a way around all those flailing bodies. A few days ago defenseman Mike Green balked at the idea of actually practicing such a skill when asked about it by reporters. Hockey is at its heart an improvisational game and he simply reacts to what’s happening in front of him. Whether he meant to or not, Green found a way around New York’s shot-blockers. He fired the puck wide and the rebound caromed off the end boards and right to a crashing Ovechkin, who slammed the puck past goalie Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game.

“Kind of a lucky bounce,” Ovechkin admitted. “But I’ll take it.”

Added teammate Troy Brouwer: “We had to find a way to keep it simple. That’s all we talked about is all season long we’ve known our outs, we’ve known where guys are open. They do a great job blocking shots. It’s tough to try and get shots through when they’re diving in front of everything, so were able to hold off a little bit and then Ovi had a good play driving to the net there.”

3. A year ago if the Caps grabbed a lead on the Rangers in their Eastern Conference semifinal series, you knew what was coming. Come hell or high water, they were staying back and protecting their own net. If that meant ceding offensive opportunities then so be it. Not on Thursday night against New York in Game 1.

“We didn’t quit playing our game. Last year if we got a lead we tried to almost trap, I guess,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “They both work. But our system we feel is more suitable to our team. And it worked tonight.”

And so instead of weathering a barrage of shots and hoping their goalie held out, Washington took the game to the Rangers in the third period when possible. They were still outshot 12-7, but that’s a far cry from last season when in 14 playoff games they had a two-goal lead for 2:54 – total.

“We’ve got to go. We’ve got to create turnovers and stuff like that,” forward Jason Chimera said. “When we sit back we don’t create turnovers and we’re not going forward. When you don’t go north, we ended up spending some more time in our end than we did and they got some zone time. You don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves. If they get the second goal, then they’re only one bounce away from tying it.”

4. Holtby doesn’t want to hear any talk about him outplaying Rangers star goalie Henrik Lundqvist. That’s just not how he views the sport. It’s not him vs. the other goalie.

Still, it was a pretty good night again for Holtby, who finished with 35 saves. He got some help from his crossbar on a Carl Hagelin shot in the third period. But all in all, Holtby was there when his team needed him. Lundqvist was pretty good himself with 27 saves, including one point blank on Erat on a semi-breakaway in the first period, and received help from his left post as well on an Ovechkin shot in tight.

“It’s a tough challenge for a young guy like Holtby to look down the ice and see Lundqvist and go head-to-head,” Brouwer said. “They’re both playing well. I thought Lundqvist made a lot of good saves tonight. He made sure that they’re having a chance to win the game. Holts did the same thing.”

The lone goal against was when Hagelin came around the net and fired the puck off defenseman John Erskine’s skate and in. Not much Holtby could do on that one. So even though his team was down 1-0, the Caps had played well enough early that Holtby felt okay with their position after the first period.

“It’s almost easier to recover mentally,” Holtby said. “Because you know there’s nothing you can do so it’s easier to move forward. You obviously don’t want them to happen. But we knew. We’re confident here that we can come back from bounces like that.”

5. No bigger sequence in Thursday’s game than when the Caps managed to kill off :56 of a 5-on-3 power play and finish the ensuing 5-on-4 for good measure. That second-period kill was necessitated by Eric Fehr’s shoulder to the jaw of Derek Stepan while playing with a broken stick short-handed.

Fehr was hit with interference and roughing penalties. Ryan Callahan of the Rangers drew just a roughing call. With Chimera serving one of the two penalties and Erat off for  boarding, the penalty box was crowded.

“We were really praying for the penalty killers to make it,” Chimera said. “When you’re down 5-on-3, your goaltender’s huge, and Holts made some big saves, which was awesome. When you get a 5-on-3 against [you] like that and you kill it, it’s a huge lift.”

Indeed, the crowd roared afterwards and the Caps’ converted on that momentum with two goals in the next  2:23. It started with the penalty kill and ended with a buzz in the arena. But not everyone was impressed. The Caps may have scored 1:37 after Fehr’s penalty ended, but momentum in a playoff game is so fleeting. It was a minor boost in a game that had a long way to go.

“I mean, I don’t know. I think that’s a little bit overrated,” defenseman John Carlson said. “I think it’s more that they missed on a big chance that they could have changed the game a little bit in that sense. But we were good on the PK all night, I thought, and everyone was paying the price, so it was good to see.”

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