NEW YORK -- For two periods it looked like a replay of the Capitals' first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Boston Bruins.
The chances were few and far between when Washington faced the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the two teams combining for just 21 shots through two periods and a goal apiece in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal.
But during a 90-second stretch of the third period, the Caps found themselves in a unique position: They were suddenly down by two goals and needed to play catch up fast. It didn't happen in a 3-1 loss.
New York, which has been eliminated by Washington twice in the postseason the last three years, leads the series 1-0 with Game 2 set for Monday night in New York. Rookie Chris Kreider, who just three weeks ago was helping Boston College to an NCAA title, scored the go-ahead goal seven minutes into the third period, and veteran center Brad Richards added another one 90 seconds later to push New York's advantage to two goals.
It was the first time in eight playoff games that the Caps trailed an opponent by two in any game. Mistakes by winger Jason Chimera on Richards' goal and a sketchy line change that didn't happen on Kreider's tally proved costly. For a team that has played on the margin in every postseason game so far, those kinds of errors are too much to overcome.
"It's not hard if you're playing the right way," forward Troy Brouwer said. "We had a couple turnovers, a couple missed assignments, and those are the ones that ended up in the back of our goal."
Neither team did itself much credit in the first period with a combined 10 shots on goal, questionable penalties, especially a slash on Caps forward Alexander Semin while his team had the man-advantage, and ugly power plays.
It took a penalty kill in the second period to actually get the Garden crowd roaring for the first time since the opening minutes. A holding call on defenseman Marc Staal and a boarding penalty on Brandon Prust gave Washington a 5-on-3 power play for 34 seconds. But the Rangers made life difficult by diving into shooting lanes and blocking one shot after another.
That momentum continued into an ensuing shift when Artem Anisimov powered his way past Caps defenseman Mike Green on a wrap-around attempt and stuffed the puck off goalie Braden Holtby's pads for a 1-0 lead.
But that momentum slipped away in the final seconds of the period. Brooks Laich pushed up ice on a 2-on-1 with Jason Chimera and expertly sent a saucer pass towards the front of the net. It landed perfectly flat, and Chimera smashed it through the legs of goalie Henrik Lundqvist with just 3.5 seconds remaining. But it wasn't enough.
"We need to be better right from our best players down," Chimera said. "I think we didn't bring the level up enough for the second round of the playoffs."