WASHINGTON – It makes perfect sense that the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals are heading to a Game 7.
In many ways, these teams are mirror images of each other.
Neither scores much. Neither allows opponents to, either. They play every game close.
And no matter how seemingly devastating a defeat, in overtime or otherwise, the Capitals—from two-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin to playoff rookie goalie Braden Holtby—simply do not allow setbacks to bother them. They regroup, get back out there and follow every loss with a victory.
Ovechkin rebounded from a rare zero-shot performance by scoring after 88 seconds Wednesday night, Holtby made 30 saves, and the Capitals recovered the way they always seem to, beating the top-seeded Rangers 2-1 to tie the Eastern Conference semifinal series at three games apiece.
“We’re resilient,” Washington defenceman Karl Alzner said. “We have that thick skin. We know when to battle back when we need to and have to.”
Never moreso than after Game 5 on Monday night, when seventh-seeded Washington managed to blow a lead in the last 10 seconds of regulation. New York scored a power-play goal with 7.6 seconds left in the third period to tie it, and another 1 1/2 minutes into overtime to win it.
The Capitals could have folded. Instead, they staved off elimination, and the teams will meet in New York on Saturday night to determine who will face the New Jersey Devils in the conference finals. Washington hasn’t been that far since 1998; the Rangers haven’t since 1997.
“That’s what we play for all year: home-ice advantage,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. “And I think home-ice advantage helps when it’s that Game 7. We have to go in there, be ready to go, feed off the crowd and get a win.”
New York’s first-round series against Ottawa went seven games. So did Washington’s opening series against Boston, last season’s Stanley Cup champion.
Now they’ll both do it again.
“It’s where we want to be,” Holtby said. “We didn’t expect a short series.”
He improved to 6-0 in games immediately after losses this post-season.
That’s why the Capitals are 4-0 in games that follow overtime losses in the playoffs. One other bit of proof that they know how to bounce back: They haven’t lost consecutive games since March 22-23.
“This is the way we are,” said Jason Chimera, who scored in the second period to give Washington its second two-goal lead of the series. “We don’t really crack.”
They can’t afford to: Twelve of the Capitals’ 13 playoff games were decided by one goal.
Ovechkin’s reduced role became a major talking point throughout these playoffs: Usually a 20-minute-a-game guy, he played as few as 13 1/2 minutes in Game 2 against New York. He also came up quiet in Game 5, with no shots on goal, only the second time in 49 career playoff games that had happened to the man they call Alex the Great.
But about 1 1/2 minutes after the opening faceoff Wednesday, Ovechkin powered a slap shot inside the right post from about 30 feet in front of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Ovechkin’s 30th career playoff goal, tying the franchise record held by Peter Bondra, came 15 seconds after Rangers defenceman Anton Stralman was sent to the penalty box for tripping Chimera.
Another miscue followed: Defenceman Ryan McDonagh wasted a chance to clear the puck, instead sending it along the boards right to a Capitals player. That giveaway led to a series of crisp passes by the Capitals—and an animated earful for McDonagh from Rangers coach John Tortorella after Ovechkin scored.
That early edge proved to be a good omen for the Capitals, who are 7-1 this post-season when scoring first—and 0-5 when their opponent scores first. In this series, all six games were won by whichever team led 1-0.
“We talked about coming out and starting well, and they get a goal right away on the power play. It kind of set the tone for the game,” Lundqvist said. “From there, it was just hard for us to get going.”
Later, Ovechkin nearly scored one of his YouTube-ready, “How did he do that?” goals, somehow managing to lift the puck past Lundqvist while belly flopping onto the ice. But the puck hit the crossbar. Then, at the opposite end of the rink, Ovechkin used his back to block a shot—the sort of thing the Russian wing is not known for, but his teammates have turned into an art form.
The Capitals rank No. 1 in blocked shots during the playoffs—the Rangers are No. 2—and Washington put together a 24-6 edge Wednesday. Ovechkin contributed three blocks.
“He had a lot of energy,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. “He’s ready to go when he’s called upon, and he played a good game tonight.”
A little more than a minute after Chimera made it 2-0, the Rangers got a good opportunity when Capitals forward Jeff Halpern—playing for the first time in more than six weeks—was called for high-sticking John Mitchell, a 4-minute double minor.
That was the same penalty called on Washington’s Joel Ward in the final 30 seconds of regulation in Game 5, while the Capitals nursed a 2-1 lead. And, well, we know how that turned out.
This time, though, the Capitals’ penalty killers were up to the task, allowing the Rangers only three shots and no goals. When Halpern skated out of the box, the lead intact, the red-clad Capitals fans gave their team a standing ovation.
“It kills you,” Tortorella said.
There was one final moment of trepidation for the Capitals and their supporters. With his mom covering her eyes in the stands, Holtby gave up a goal with 50.5 seconds left—a score credited to Rangers forward Marian Gaborik, whose shot deflected off Capitals forward Matt Hendricks’ skate and defenceman John Carlson’s hip in the crease.
Said Ward: “You kind of think, ‘Oh, no. Not again!’ But we’re a confident group.”
NOTES: Game 7 starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT. … Capitals F Jay Beagle was scratched because of what the team said was a lower-body injury and replaced by Halpern, who hadn’t played since March 23.