Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ovechkin and Semin lift Caps past Rangers in overtime

For nearly 54 minutes, the Rangers had it going their way. With Henrik Lundqvist having stoned the top seeded Capitals keeping a tactical Game One scoreless until Matt Gilroy scored in his first postseason game early in the third, it looked like a recipe for success. However, a fluky tying goal from Alex Ovechkin that needed video review and an Alexander Semin appearance doomed the Blueshirts to a cruel 2-1 overtime defeat at Verizon Center last night in D.C.

Obviously anytime you lose in overtime you feel like it got away because all you have to do is get one goal and you win the game,” main culprit Marc Staal said after his turnover allowed former Devil Cup hero Jason Arnott to set up Semin's OT winner at 18:24 to give the No.1 seed a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. “It’s disappointing. It’s the playoffs, so we’ll come back and try to win the next one.”

That'll be the mantra the Rangers will adhere to. One they've been familiar with all season, finding ways to bounce back from tough losses. Albeit this one a bit more magnified due to the pressure attached to the first round rematch of two years ago. Staal, who for the most part did a sound job along with partner Dan Girardi stifling Ovechkin- wound up minus-two despite logging nearly 34 minutes while Girardi almost 33. They know what to expect from Ovechkin, dangerous centerman Nicklas Backstrom and gritty ex-Blueshirt Mike Knuble, who was one of three Caps to hit the post in the first two scoreless periods. Outside of one blown coverage that allowed Backstrom to sneak in on Lundqvist, who foiled his backhand five-hole try, they had the upperhand until the oddest of plays allowed Washington to tie it.

In his first game back from a concussion which he missed 20 games prior ironically due to a Derek Stepan collision, offensive defenseman Mike Green factored in on the tying goal. Behind his own net, Green sent a long outlet for Semin, who Cap coach Bruce Boudreau had out in place of Knuble searching for offense. The slippery Russian got away from Staal and Girardi, who collided at the Ranger blueline, allowing Semin to move in. With Rangers scrambling back including Girardi, Semin took a shot that Lundqvist tried to cover. The whistle never came with Ovechkin bulling over Girardi before slipping a stuff-in through Lundqvist. Thinking he scored, the Washington captain celebrated along with teammates while the confused officials never indicated a goal, calling up Toronto. Conclusive replays showed that the puck crossed the goal line. However, you have to wonder if when the ref blew his whistle, he intended to blow it dead. Instead, Ovechkin and the Caps celebrated the tying goal with 6:16 left in regulation.

I think it’s underneath me and the whistle never comes, so then I move,” Lundqvist noted to no avail. “I think that’s the case. It just crossed the line. Sometimes they’re real fast blowing the whistle, but it is what it is. Me personally, I’m kind of stuck in that position so I have to hope for a whistle or for someone to clear the puck. That didn’t happen.

Bad break or not, the game was suddenly tied. Four Rangers watched instead of taking Ovechkin, who made a smart play to spark his team. Lundqvist probably should've had it regardless. Regardless, they still had a chance to steal this one against a stingier Capital defense that allowed 11 shots through two periods and finished with 32 blocked shots to the Rangers' 28.

The Blueshirts never established a consistent forecheck with only the line of Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust and Wojtek Wolski effective enough to help get a puck past rookie Michal Neuvirth, who finished with 24 saves in capturing his first playoff win in his debut. That included four stops on Marian Gaborik, who had a great chance to be the early OT hero when Boyle found him in front but Cap rookie who won 27 games during the regular season calmly slid across for the big save. Neuvirth was good, also denying Artem Anisimov's bid and a Gaborik rebound before his teammates seized control to finally pull out the win in sudden death.

"We had to stay the course. We couldn’t get frustrated, Backstrom said of his team that's trying to avoid a second consecutive first round upset as the conference's top seed. “I think we did a great job with that. Hopefully this can give us a little confidence.

It didn't come easy for the Caps despite a few chinks in the armor for their Broadway opponent that allowed glorious opportunities only to see pucks from Knuble, Arnott and Semin go off the post. They also had to contend with Lundqvist, who was outstanding in making 31 saves, featuring highway robbery on a Green high labeler along with a pair of sparklers to deny Jeff Schultz and rookie Marcus Johansson in the extra session.

Despite being unable to sustain a consistent attack, the Rangers remained in good position to take Game One. Finally coming on in the final minutes of the second, they carried momentum forward by striking first in the series thanks to some diligent work from Boyle, Prust and Wolski. After Boyle took a hit to work the puck deep, Prust won a board battle and sent it to Wolski who then turned and found a pinching Gilroy for his first playoff goal at 1:56. Consider that it was his first goal since Jan.5 and only in his second straight game including the fateful Game 82 when he replaced Steve Eminger and it speaks volumes about Gilroy's maturity. The former Hobey Baker winner also had a chance late but fired wide.

Part of the problem for the Rangers was the power play, which went 0-for-2 looking all too predictable against one of the league's best penalty killing units. The Caps were aggressive, easily moving the puck out when they had the chance. Meanwhile, our PK blanked the Washington hosts in two opportunities despite some decent chances. But Lundqvist was there to save their bacon.

Nursing a one-goal lead, it looked like they would protect it for the win. Our shifts were stronger following Gilroy's goal with players paying close attention to assignments, working the puck out efficiently and getting it deep to take time off. Particularly effective was the dynamic rookie tandem of Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer, who looked unfazed by the circumstances. Each were trusted by John Tortorella, getting 36 shifts apiece averaging a shade under 27 minutes. One shift was impressive with the Caps pressing for the equalizer. They were pinned in for a while but McDonagh made two strong plays to free the puck up behind the goal, which was finally cleared.

Also looking poised was Derek Stepan, who made some nice reads chipping the puck in and using his speed to outhustle Caps behind the net. He was good as was Ruslan Fedotenko but outside of two strong shifts, leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky had a miserable night, losing 13 of 20 faceoffs while registering only a shot with a minus-two rating. He must be better tomorrow if we're going to gain a split.

"We've gotta get the next game from them," Dubinsky said. "I'm sure we'll talk about this one, the positives and the negatives, and just continue to try to get better. With the way we play, we feel like we're going to make it tough on them."
Despite each team going for it with especially ours coming close near the end of regulation, the closely fought contest needed overtime to decide. Both teams nearly ended it with Semin denied by Lundqvist and Backstrom stoned while Neuvirth saved his best for Gaborik, Anisimov and Vinny Prospal. As play continued, it became more apparent the more talented Caps were taking it to us. Eventually, their persistence paid off when Chris Drury failed to clear the zone. After it was pushed back down to Staal, he saw three Caps in his way but instead of reversing to an open Girardi, he tried to lift it past Arnott, who knocked it down. The savvy vet settled the puck before dishing across to Semin for a rocket that finally ended his playoff scoring drought.

"Henrik Lundqvist is a great goalie, and it's very difficult to score an easy one on him," the jubilant Semin told a translator after scoring his first playoff goal in 15 games. "We couldn't get a nice goal on him, so we scored a junk goal - just pushed it in, whatever worked."

We’re not getting anywhere without Alex Semin scoring,” explained Boudreau. “We need him to go and create that other offensive threat.”

"I tried to move across, and I was probably covering the middle of the net, but I just didn't have time to react on it," lamented Lundqvist, who dropped his fourth consecutive decision in sudden death. "It was a hard one. It was going up and down a little bit - he just fired it real hard. It's tough. Obviously, you want to try to be the difference, and try to help the team to get a win here but you just move on."

Instead, it's onto Game Two. Another chance to take home ice away from the Caps and give themselves a realistic shot at the upset.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (31 saves, falls to 1-4 career in playoff OT)
2nd Star-Alex Ovechkin, Caps (1st of playoffs-21st career, 6 hits, block, 6 SOG, +1 in 26:46)
1st Star-Alex Semin, Caps (OT winner at 18:24, assist, 4 SOG, +2 in 22:15)

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