Once again this Spring, the Washington Capitals found themselves down 1-0 on the road to open a playoff series, and once again they found a way to even the series before heading back to D.C. On a night they blew a two-goal lead, their captain scored the game-winning goal with 7:27 to go to put the Caps ahead for good. Alex Ovechkin, who seems to play less each game, fired a game-high 7 shots on goal, laid out 2 hits, and blocked a shot, all in just 13:36 of ice time. The good news for the team is that Ovechkin seems to have bought into his new role as decoy and doesn’t mind playing fewer minutes if he wins.
The game started out with the Capitals’ forwards getting good pressure on Lundqvist then getting lost in neutral zone coverage. After the first couple minutes, the Rangers took advantage of the sloppy play and began brutalizing the Capitals in their own end. Mike Green in particular was the target of several hard body-checks in the first period. Four minutes in, Roman Hamrlik took a needless holding penalty after he allowed lanky Rangers’ Artem Anisimov to get to a puck first before wrap-tackling him to the ice.
The Rangers’ powerplay was stymied by the Capitals’ excellent penalty kill, which featured a painful shot-block off the back off Matt Hendricks’ calf. A tense moment came when Nicklas Backstrom was thrown out of the faceoff circle against #1 faceoff man Brad Richards (15-for-29), but Troy Brouwer stepped in and won the draw on a second-effort play and the Caps cleared the zone.
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The Rangers pressed throughout the period, their defenseman rushing into the play and their forward banging bodies down low, but they couldn’t break through rookie goalie Braden Holtby (26 saves). Perhaps the bellwether for the game came midway through the period. A shot from Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh at the point was expertly deflected on goal by captain Ryan Callahan, and the shot trickled through Holtby’s pads toward the goal line. Spotting the sliding disc, Mike Green dove behind Holtby to poke the puck into the corner and keep the game scoreless.
The Capitals continued to press the Rangers and get good chances, and their efforts paid off. After scoring only one goal on 18 shots in Game 1, the Capitals scored two goals on 12 shots in the first period to open a 2-0 lead. Twelve minutes in, the Caps’ fourth line forced a turnover from Rangers’ defenseman Stu Bickel, who threw the puck into the middle of the ice from the right point. The Michael Jordan of Hockey, Joel Ward, picked off the errant pass and cut through the neutral zone on a 3-on-2 with Mike Knuble and Keith Aucoin. The tic-tac-toe play of Ward to Aucoin high in the slot, back to Ward who dished cross-crease for a tap-in for Knuble.
Three minutes later, the Caps got a powerplay not long after when the Rangers were caught with too many men on the ice. The Caps failed to convert on the man advantage, and as the penalty expired, the puck hopped over John Calrson’s stick at the point where recently released Ranger forward Chris Kreider was waiting. The hero of Game 1 raced in on a clean breakaway, but Holtby stoned him. As the Caps moved the puck back up ice, they dumped it deep into the Rangers’ zone. Jason Chimera chased the puck down the ice as Henrik Lundqvist went behind his goal to play it. Chimera stole the puck and centered to Matt Hendricks in front of the empty cage. Hendricks was handcuffed by the pass, but managed to put the puck between his legs on net as Lundqvist and a defender dove to stop it. The puck squirted out back to Chimera, who bounced it in off Ryan McDonagh’s skates and in for a 2-0 lead.
Thirty seconds later the game got chippy. Rangers forward Marian Gaborik got away with a vicious hit from behind theat sent Hendricks face-first into the boards by the bench. As the puck moved up-ice, Rangers defender Marc Staal was just stopping after an offsides call when he got hit by Caps defender John Carlson. Staal slashed Carlson, and Carlson retaliated and got a roughing penalty. The Rangers scored on the ensuing 4-on-4 when Jeff Schultz left Rangers’ 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik all alone. Gaborik took a feed from Michael Del Zotto, and as Schultz left Brad Richards and approached Gaborik with his stick in the shooting lane, Gaborik slipped the pack back through the now-open passing lane to Richards who dunked it into the cage.
The Rangers stuck to their game plan of banging bodies in the offensive zone and it paid off when Mike Green’s frustration boiled over, tripping up his checker with just 10 seconds to go in the period. In a span of 43 seconds, the Rangers went from facing a 2-0 deficit at the first intermission to only being down 2-1 with 1:50 on the powerplay to open the second period.
The Capitals ably killed off the Green penalty, and the second period was marked by Holtby robbing Mike Rupp from in close, plus stopping two shots off his mask. Alex Ovechkin his a post behind Lundqvist, too. Both coaches burned their timeouts after icing calls.
The Capitals were still nursing their 2-1 lead entering the third period. It was 6 minutes into the period that Mike Knuble missed an airborne puck with his stick and found a Ranger instead, winning a trip to the penalty box. His look of disgust was apparent when Ryan Callahan tipped home the game-tying goal soon after. It was a double-deflected puck the goalie had no chance on, and the Caps were back even after penalties cost them a 2-goal lead.
Fortunately for the Caps, the Rangers had some penalty trouble of their own. Midway through the period, Rangers center Brian Boyle, back in the lineup after missing 3 games due to a concussion, got tagged for a holding the stick penalty in the offensive zone when he took down Mike Green. While they didn’t score, the Caps gained momentum on that powerplay, moving the puck well and getting good chances. Just 30 seconds after Boyle exited the box, Brad Richards got nailed knocking down John Carlson, and that’s when Ovechkin went to work.
Nicklas Backstrom won the offensive zone draw back to Ovechkin, holding up Boyle in the process. Ovechkin used the open shooting channel and his teammate as a screen to rip a wrist shot from the point over Henrik Lundqvist’s shoulder. From that point on, the Caps were just surviving.
The Rangers came back and pressed hard, but the Caps made them go 200 feet for their chances as often as they could. Their desire to win was never more evident than when 39-year old Mike Knuble beat out 21-year old Michael Del Zotto to negate an icing call and keep the clock ticking. With a minute left in the game, Del Zotto hit his second post of the evening, and King Henrik finished the game on the bench as the Rangers tried in vain to score with an extra attacker.