- Scott Burnside, NHL
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NEW YORK -- It is undeniable that the Washington Capitals can beat one of the top teams in the game without a significant contribution from their star captain and his star acolytes.
We saw it with our own eyes in Game 7 when the Capitals eliminated the Bruins in overtime.
And nothing can diminish that accomplishment, defeating the defending Stanley Cup champions in a seven-game series in which all seven games were decided by one goal, an accomplishment made large by the fact the victory did not come by riding on the shoulders of Alex Ovechkin.
But in the wake of Saturday's 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers to open their Eastern Conference semifinal series, it is fair to question whether that opening-round victory is doomed to be nothing more than a footnote in the Caps' annual playoff dirge, a kind of a false note of hope before the inevitable disappointment.
After grinding the New York Rangers to a standstill through two periods -- two periods of eye-glazing, chip-and-chase, nothing-ventured-nothing-gained hockey -- the Capitals actually seemed to have successfully replicated the numbing style of hockey they used to send Boston packing.
Yet without any meaningful contributions from their star players, it was the Rangers who ended up imposing their will on the Caps, scoring twice in a 1:30 span in the third period to remind everyone that there is a reason New York is the top seed in the Eastern Conference, regardless of its struggles to defeat the plucky Ottawa Senators in a seven-game set in the first round.
"It's a grind. We found a way to win one," Rangers head coach John Tortorella said after Game 1.
It's possible Amnesty International will be viewing tapes of the first two periods to see if they represent cruel and unusual punishment.
Through two periods, the Rangers were limited to eight shots on goal.
That the two teams were tied 1-1 through two is a testament to hard work by Rangers forward Artem Anisimov, who out-hustled two-time Norris Trophy nominee Mike Green behind the Caps' net and surprised rookie netminder Braden Holtby with a quick wraparound shot to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. Equally fine work was done by Brooks Laich, who spotted Jason Chimera streaking to the Rangers' net just over seven minutes later and delivered a perfect saucer pass that Chimera chipped between the pads of New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist.
Throughout seven games against the Bruins, the Caps never trailed by more than a goal. This was their time.
But in the third period, the Rangers' top players found ways to put their imprint on the game, to essentially beat the Capitals at their own game, waiting for an opening and then capitalizing.
Seven minutes into the final frame, Derek Stepan caught the Capitals on a horrific line change and rookie sensation Chris Kreider blasted home what would be the winner. Then 1:30 later, it was Brad Richards, the Rangers' most significant offseason acquisition, quashing any hopes of a Caps comeback as he came unchallenged from the side of the net and snuck a shot between Holtby's pads.
And that was that.
The Rangers finished out the day with just 14 shots, four more than the Caps mustered.
"You're not really going to affect us with how many shots you have," Richards said. "We played a good game and it's going to be like that all series.
"They're going to play just like that and we can't lose our composure and try to do too much."
There is always an element of balance to these games.
The Rangers managed to tip the Game 1 scale their way thanks to their top players.
The Caps could not tip it back their way.
Holtby acknowledged that he was not at his best and admitted he was put off by the minuscule number of shots.
He promised to be better.
"I think they had a tired group over and we didn't bring it tonight, myself especially," Holtby said. "I think I had a tough time getting into the game not because of the stage but just because of how the game went I didn't bring my level up when I needed to and I'll work on that for Game 2."
Certainly the rookie had some higher-paid company among those whose efforts needed to be better.
Green has played very well with Roman Hamrlik since coming back from injury. But he was beaten by Anisimov, then turned to go to the bench as Kreider was sprung for what was the winning goal, while Hamrlik couldn't get back in the play.
Ovechkin had another pedestrian outing, although he did play 21:03 in Game 1, his third-highest ice-time total of the playoffs. During a 34-second 5-on-3 in the second period, Ovechkin hammered the puck wide and had another hard shot blocked. He took a lazy penalty after trying to beat two Rangers by himself and in general did little to generate much offense on a day when offense was distinctly lacking.
"Yeah, again, one mistakes, two mistakes cost us a goal, cost us a game," Ovechkin said. "Again, offense, we just have to create more opportunity to find a rebound and make it some traffic in front of the net."
Alexander Semin earned high praise when he scored in three straight games against Boston, but he negated an early power play by childishly chopping Ryan Callahan in the back of the legs as they were both going to the bench.
He took another penalty deep in the Rangers' zone and was likewise not a factor, going three straight games without a point despite leading the Caps with three shots and hitting the crossbar (off Lundqvist's arm).
Nicklas Backstrom came close a couple of times but admitted the team's best players have to be better if the Caps are going to build off their first-round successes.
"Yeah absolutely," Backstrom said. "We've got to start scoring goals. I think we created a couple chances tonight. We hit the post three times, I think. So it's tough, but overall we didn't play a good game. We've got to play a little tighter and just be better. That was not good enough."
The Caps, of course, lost the first game of the opening-round series to Boston and also trailed 2-1 in the series before reeling off three victories in their last four outings. But Game 1 against the Rangers suggests that to replicate that task will be nigh on impossible without more help from the players from whom help should rightfully be expected.
It is fair to question whether that opening-round victory is doomed to be nothing more than a footnote in the Caps' annual playoff dirge, a kind of a false note of hope before the inevitable disappointment, writes Scott Burnside.