When "Great" Still Isn't Good Enough: Caps Fall to Rangers 4-3 In Opening Playoff Game
The Capitals' Viktor Kozlov scored a goal in a 4-3 loss against the New York Rangers in the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC on Wednesday, April 15, 2009. Alan P. Santos/DC Sports Box File Photo
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The adage goes that the only sure things in life are death and taxes.  On the day tax returns in the United States were due, the Washington Capitals would have done well to heed that old saw.  Appearing at times to take a victory on home ice for granted, Washington was instead stunned by the New York Rangers 4-3 Wednesday night in the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Tomas Fleischmann, Viktor Kozlov and Alexander Semin scored for the Capitals, while Scott Gomez, Nik Antropov, Markus Naslund and Brandon Dubinsky struck for the Rangers.  Henrik Lundqvist made 32 saves on 35 shots, while Theodore only stopped 17 of the 21 shots sent his way.

Gomez, who won two Stanley Cups as a member of the New Jersey Devils, had a particularly strong game for the Rangers, earning two assists in addition to his goal.  On the other end, Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green both finished with two assists, and Ovechkin had a +1 rating to go along with his 26:07 of ice time, 13 shots on net (out of 28 attempted) and six hits.

Hitting was the name of the game in the first period -- as was Capitals puck possession -- but the 20 minutes ended with nothing to show on the scoreboard.  Washington dominated in hits, shots on goal and time of possession, while the Rangers could only manage, as Dubinsky put it, “to weather the storm.”

Capitals forward Matt Bradley was proud of the team effort, saying, “playing physical is something anybody can do, it doesn’t matter if you’re a skill guy or not, and I thought for most of the game we played pretty physical all throughout the lineup.”

Ovechkin came closest to scoring for the Caps when he beat defender Michal Rozsival with an inside-outside move and put a shot on Lundqvist, while Ryan Callahan hit the post late in the period for the Rangers.

Where the first period failed in scoring, the second period provided ample fireworks.  The Capitals struck first before the Rangers scored three unanswered goals, their onslaught halted with under a minute left by another Capitals marker.

Washington’s dangerous power play struck first 6:40 in to the period when Ovechkin’s wrist shot from the blue line was deflected at the crease by Fleischmann over Lundqvist’s pads.

Fleischmann’s goal invigorated the sell-out crowd of 18,277 in the Verizon Center, but they were quickly quieted when Gomez beat Theodore’s high blocker side from the left faceoff dot.  The play was not without controversy—Sean Avery appeared to clip Green at the blue line, allowing Gomez to skate in the zone unmolested, but no infraction was whistled and the goal stood.  

Asked if he was surprised there was no penalty called on the play, Boudreau was uncharacteristically terse in his reply.  An emphatic, “Yes” was all the coach had to say.

Half a period later, the Caps were punished by the Rangers unheralded power play, allowing goals on consecutive shots on back-to-back penalty kills.  Whereas Washington had noticeable difficulty establishing puck control against New  York’s top-ranked penalty kill, the Rangers had no such trouble with the extra player.

Twice New York scored with under 11 seconds in a power play, demoralizing a Washington team that thought it had made successful kills.  With 3:11 left in the period Antropov snuck in from the right boards, faked a slap shot and then cut inside and put a wrist shot over Theodore’s outstretched right leg pad.  Then with 92 seconds left in the period Gomez strode across the blue line and dropped the puck to Naslund, who flipped it over Theodore’s shoulder.

With two goals in the final four minutes of the period, it appeared the momentum had decisively swung in New York’s favor.  That is, until Kozlov crashed the net and tapped Nicklas Backstrom’s blind feed into the net with just 48.9 seconds remaining in the period.

Unlike in games past, the Caps were able to capitalize on Kozlov’s late marker with an early strike in the third period.  Yet again on the power play, Washington struggled until late in the advantage, when Green took a long shot from the point that was turned away by Lundqvist.  Ovechkin dug the puck out of the corner and flipped it at the net, where the Swedish goalie struggled to corral it.  He kicked the puck off the goal line directly to Semin, who found the twine to tie the game at 3.

The matchup between Washington’s power play and New York’s penalty kill was one of the major storylines coming into this series.  New York was ranked first in the NHL during the regular season at 87.8% effectiveness, while Washington was second in power play effectiveness at 25.2%.  Washington won the battle, finishing 2-for-7 (28.6%), but the Rangers were even more successful, converting 50% of their power play opportunities (2-for-4).

Washington’s dramatic comeback was not to be, however.  Immediately after the Caps failed to convert on a power play late in the third, Dubinsky took a pass along the left boards, strode into the Capitals zone and completely undressed Jeff Schultz, creating a breakaway chance that the Rangers forward buried past Theodore.

Boudreau was unable to defend his defenseman on the play, acknowledging, “it’s the NHL, you get beat one-on-one…you allow the guy to get a breakaway, you can’t hide from that…he didn’t get the job done.”

While Schultz suffered from one, albeit egregious, defensive lapse, Theodore’s play was more of a concern for the second-year coach.  In the locker room after the game, the goalie took the blame for the loss.  Asked about his goaltender’s statement, Boudreau was quick in his response: “He’s right.”

For Boudreau, Theodore’s struggles wasted an otherwise outstanding defensive effort by the Capitals.  “We allowed 21 shots, they had five power plays, I thought we did a great job defensively,” said the coach.   He indicated briefly considering pulling Theodore in favor of rookie back-up Simeon Varlamov at the end of the second period and then after New York’s fourth goal, before saying, “you never want to look like you’re panicking,” adding “there’s a chance anything can happen,” when asked if Varlamov would start in Saturday’s Game Two.

Though as many as six games remain in the series, the odds are now in New York’s favor as they only need to win three of the next six games, three of which would be at Madison Square Gardens, while the Caps must win at least one game on the road to secure a series victory.

“What can I say?” asked Ovechkin after the game.  “It’s the playoffs.  It’s seven games.  You can’t concentrate on one game.  It’s seven games.  It’s one week.  It’s okay.  It happens.  We can’t win all of our games right away.”

That may not be the case, but Washington needs to focus on Saturday afternoon’s game before thinking of the rest of the series.  A victory over the Rangers puts the Capitals at only a slight disadvantage, while a loss would put them in a 0-2 hole going into a crucial pair of games in New York City.

-Kozlov’s goal was the first career playoff goal in 22 playoff games for the sixteen-year NHL veteran
-Washington won 46 of 66 face-offs, a stunning 70% effectiveness in a league where winning just over 50% is considered a success.  

-Early in the third period Ovechkin lost his helmet in the Rangers’ end, and play did not stop before his next shift.  Ovechkin took the ice wearing teammate Bradley’s helmet, visor-less and noticeably smaller than Ovechkin’s usual lid.  Asked if he was alright with loaning Ovechkin his helmet, Bradley cracked the only smile in the post-game locker room and said, “if he needs my helmet, he can take my helmet.”

-Wednesday’s game was highly-penalized for a playoff game.  New York committed seven minor penalties, three by Markus Naslund and two by Dan Girardi, while the Capitals committed four minors, including two delay of game penalties for putting the puck over the glass.

-In addition to his two assists, Mike Green played over half the game, finishing with a game-high 30:47 of ice time.  The high-flying defenseman was on the ice for three of New York’s goals and had a -1 rating.  He was also the apparent focus for Rangers super pest Sean Avery, well known for his ability to get under his opponents’ skins.  Green claimed to not be bothered by the attention, saying, “I liked it…it makes me play stronger,” but the impetuous defender’s reactions to Avery over the course of the season could be a potential distraction to his overall play.