It was nearly the perfect win for the Rangers. With a 1-0 lead late in the third, New York was closing in one a 1-0 series lead and dredging up all sorts of sour memories for the Washington Capitals. Then a goal by Alex Ovechkin changed everything. Here's how it went down at Verizon Center on Wednesday night:
What It Means: The Rangers showed they can certainly stay with the East's No. 1 seed in the playoffs, but couldn't quite close the deal. Now they'll have to keep their focus and realize that a win in Game 2 is just as important as the one that slipped away late Wednesday.
Early Energy: I thought it would be key for the Rangers to come out flying. While the Blueshirts did control the puck for much of the first four minutes, the Caps gradually took over. Taking a page from the Rangers' book, midway through the second period the Caps started initiating some big hits, keyed first by a crushing blow by Ovechkin on Brandon Dubinsky. Midway through the second period, the Caps held a 21-11 advantage in the hits category. It ended with a 35-31 lean towards the Caps.
Living Dangerously: After enduring a pair of Caps' power plays (due to two silly penalties by the Rangers) and two crossbar strikes at even strength, the Rangers were probably content to take a 0-0 tie to the locker room after the first 20 minutes. Henrik Lundqvist came up huge with two key saves to stop tap-in Caps goals, the second of which showed some sensational awareness. When a Caps' shot took a funky bounce off the boards, Lundqvist began moving to the left but caught himself when he couldn’t see the puck. He snapped his head back to the right, raised his blocker and stoned Ovechkin at point-blank range. In all, they survived the first 20 minutes unscathed despite being outshot nearly 2-1. And keep in mind those didn't include the two crossbars. Those are the sort of fortuitous breaks opponents of the Caps have enjoyed in the playoffs and the kind that have come back to haunt Washington so often. But tonight the Caps were able to overcome them.
There’s That Man Again: Fortune wasn't the only thing that kept the puck out of the net. Lundqvist was stellar, stopping 31 shots through regulation and 18:24 of OT. In the second period, he halted the Caps’ best scoring chance when he turned aside Nicklas Backstrom on a cold breakaway. Backstrom slid the puck through Lundqvist’s five hole and had his fellow Swede beat, but -- whether it was a conscious act or instinct -- the goalie flipped his right calf back underneath him to send the puck wide of the cage. Simply put, he was one referee whistle away from stealing this game from the Caps.
One And Done: Two minutes into the third period, Matt Gilroy punctuated his first playoff game with his first playoff goal. Gilroy took a feed from Brandon Prust, who was stationed behind the net, and flung it past Michal Neuvirth to stake the Rangers to a 1-0 lead. The W2W4 for this series mentioned how the Blueshirts’ forecheck could give the Caps problems, particularly Mike Green, who is shaking off rust, and John Erskine, who is not particularly strong at moving the puck out of the zone. Guess which Washington D pairing was on the ice for the goal? If I'm, John Tortorella I'm hoping to roll the Brian Boyle-Prust line against that pairing all series long.
O So Close: The Rangers were pressing the Caps' backs to the boards late in regulation when Ovechkin literally powered his team to a tying goal with six minutes and change remaining. A loose puck sat at Lundqvist's skates at the left post of the net when Ovechkin went all "world's strongest Russian left wing" to push the puck and Lundqvist over the goal line ahead of the referee's whistle. There was some question about whether there was "intent" to blow the whistle before the puck crossed the goal line, which would have negated the goal. But after a brief review to see if the net was off its moorings, it was 1-1.
OT: Just when it seemed like this game was destined for a second overtime, Jason Arnott snagged a Rangers clearing attempt with his glove at the blueline against the right boards, dropped the puck to the ice and passed it between the circles to Alex Semin. The Russian sniper did the rest, firing a missile past a helpless Lundqvist for the win.
What’s Next: Perspective will be key. The Rangers missed a great chance to seize control of this series early and raise the specter of past playoff failures for the Caps. But if you look at the big picture, as a No. 8 seed, you took the No. 1 seed to overtime in its barn, and for that you have to feel pretty good. And if the Blueshirts can capture Game 2, they'll still have home-ice advantage heading back to MSG on Sunday. The loss will still be bitter, but if they can knot the series at 1, then the road trip to Washington is a net win for the Boys in Blue.