The New York Rangers won all four of their first-round games against Pittsburgh by a 2-1 score – the same score that was registered Thursday night in Game 1 of their second-round series against Washington. Unfortunately for them, the Blueshirts wound up on the wrong end of that score after Capitals star Alex Ovechkin made a fantastic pass to set up a Joel Ward goal with 1.3 seconds remaining in regulation – and on the same play as Nicklas Backstrom's controversial hit on Dan Boyle.
The Rangers didn't play a poor game – they outshot the Caps 12-7 in the opening frame and had some decent scoring chances – but Washington took Game 1's first lead at Madison Square Garden on a laser-like wrist shot from Ovechkin late in the first period and held it until after the 15-minute mark of the third. That's when a Kevin Hayes shot deflected off New York's Jesper Fast to thwart Braden Holtby's shutout attempt and tie the score at a goal apiece. From there, it appeared the teams were headed to overtime. Instead, this happened:
The Blueshirts – most notably, head coach Alain Vigneault – were incensed as the game ended, as they believed the goal shouldn't have counted due to Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom taking a run at Boyle and driving him into the boards with an apparent headshot just before Ward scored his second of the post-season. If the officials had called Backstrom for a charge, they would've whistled the puck dead when Ovechkin touched it and the game would've went to extra time. But that's not the way it shook out, and the bottom line now is Washington has stolen home ice advantage from the Rangers. More importantly, the Caps have put the Blueshirts on notice in many regards.
The Rangers are now on notice Ovechkin isn't taking a backseat to anyone, as he did against the Islanders. Washington's captain was relatively quiet in the first round, but with his goal and primary assist on the game-winner, he made it quite clear he's going to be a significant problem for the Blueshirts to attempt to contain.
The Rangers are also on notice Holtby will give star netminder Henrik Lundqvist a run for his money as the best goalie in this series. The 25-year-old stopped 31 Rangers shots Thursday, and although Lundqvist looked solid in making 27 saves, Holtby's continuing emergence under the tutelage of goalie coach extraordinaire Mitch Korn is something to behold. The youngster looks as poised as his 33-year-old counterpart, and in the end, Lundqvist allowed the game's biggest goal and Holtby earned the win. That's all that counts.
The Blueshirts' veterans – including Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Martin St-Louis and Derek Stepan, all of who were held off the scoresheet in Game 1 – need to provide Lundqvist with more support on offense, and Vigneault will need to address his team's carelessness with the puck (the Rangers had 20 giveaways, while Washington had 13). But again, it's not as if their fans should be preparing for a four-game Caps sweep here. Fast's goal did give them energy and if the officials had've caught/called Backstrom's hit (which sent a woozy Boyle to the dressing room immediately and before the final 1.3 seconds was played), the result in overtime could have been in the Rangers' favor.
But hey, this is the playoffs. Stuff happens. Referees miss calls and blow calls. The best teams – the championship teams – find ways to overcome adversity in whatever form adversity presents itself. The Capitals made the most of the opportunities they got, and the Rangers didn't.
There's every likelihood the Blueshirts rebound for Game 2 Saturday and they head to Washington with the series evened up, but Vigneault & Co. are fully aware, as they likely were before Game 1 began, that Holtby and Washington's rebuilt defense can now keep them in games long enough for them to (pardon the pun) capitalize on another team's small mistakes.
In previous years, the Caps were on the wrong end of that turn of events. But in Game 1, they showed they may be a different Washington team than we've ever seen before. And if the Rangers are to make it to the Eastern Conference Final, they're going to have to raise their game.