WASHINGTON - If the aim of the new-style Washington Capitals is to win by frustration, they've certainly hit full stride against the New York Rangers.
The Rangers controlled the flow of play for two of three periods against the Capitals on Friday night, but couldn't penetrate a group that has truly learned how to play defensive hockey. New York managed only 22 shots on Michal Neuvirth and the rookie stopped every single one, getting his first playoff shutout in a 2-0 victory that gave Washington a 2-0 lead in the first-round Eastern Conference series.
"It's a long game," said Brooks Laich, who assisted on Washington's first goal. "And if you can bend at times but not break and keep up that solid defensive hockey, maybe frustrate them, it works to our advantage."
So far, so good—unless you're sitting in the Rangers' locker room, trying to figure out how your team has managed only one goal in nearly 140 minutes in the series.
"We've done some of the things we wanted to do, but it's not enough," centre Brian Boyle said. "It wasn't enough in Game 1, and it wasn't enough tonight. It's frustration tonight. We get (ticked) off, but it is what it is. We're down two and we need to win Game 3."
After playing on their heels much of the first period, the Capitals got a talk from coach Bruce Boudreau and came out for the second period a different team, dominating the Rangers from one end of the rink to the other. Jason Chimera and Jason Arnott scored in a 1:57 span.
"We came out a little slow, and he addressed that in the intermission of the first and second," defenceman Mike Green said. "And we started to pick it up after that. And then it was just a battle of attrition 'til the end."
Neuvirth took care of the rest. The 23-year-old goalie, who had four shutouts in the regular season, has stopped 46-of-47 shots so far in the series. It turns out those titles he won in the minors had him well prepared after all.
"He's been in the playoffs before," Arnott said. "Maybe not in this elite league, but he's just a young goaltender. The young guys are taking over the league, and the goalies are getting younger as well, and they've got to step up and take a leadership role as well as be the backbone of the team, and he's doing that right now."
Henrik Lundqvist made 16 saves for the Rangers, who return home for Game 3 on Sunday. They've held Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin to one goal apiece, but that's no longer the formula for beating the Capitals.
"People still identify our team as an offensive firepower," Laich said. "I keep harping on it that our defensive zone and our defensive coverage is going to be a key for us, perhaps the biggest key in the playoffs. We're going to get some goals; we're not going to score five."
Game 2 was more physical and feisty than the Capitals' 2-1 overtime victory in Game 1, in part due to agitator Sean Avery's return to New York's lineup after he was a healthy scratch Wednesday night. The stat sheet had 29 combined hits in the first period alone.
The Rangers came out more aggressive, creating chance after chance on Neuvirth, while the Capitals were more tight and defensive, content to poke away the puck at the last minute and wait for a possible counterattack. New York coach John Tortorella said his players needed to find ways to generate offence after Washington's skaters blocked 32 shots in Game 1.
They did, but they couldn't solve Neuvirth.
The Capitals needed more than six minutes to get their first shot on goal, had none on their first power play and were outshot 13-7 in the first period.
The second period was a different story. The Rangers didn't get a shot on goal for more than 10 minutes. By then, it was 2-0 in favour of the Capitals.
"We got hurt by a surge tonight," Tortorella said. "Good teams do it. We're going to have to try to get one ourselves as we go to our building."
Washington's first goal was a gem of puck movement. Scott Hannan kept the puck in the zone and got it behind the net, where Laich fought for position and managed to slide it to Marcus Johansson while falling to the ice. Johansson instantly fed Chimera, who was unchecked in front of the net and went down to his leftknee and he wristed in the easy score at the 2:11 mark.
Soon, New York's Ryan McDonagh was in the penalty box for a roughing call after the whistle, and the Capitals took advantage. Green unleashed a slap shot from the right circle that was deflected by Rangers defenceman Matt Gilroy over to the left circle, where Arnott pounced on the puck and put his shot past Lundqvist 4:08 into the period.
With the lead, Washington essentially called off the attack in the third period and played 20 more minutes of frustration hockey.
"I'm not discouraged with the hockey club," Tortorella said. "We need to just relax ... and just find a way to bang a couple in."
NOTES: LW Mats Zuccarello was scratched to make room for Avery. ... Capitals D Dennis Wideman skated for a few minutes Friday morning as he attempts to return after being hospitalized with a scary leg injury. Boudreau called Wideman's appearance a "surprising sign" and said the defenceman might be able to play in the series, depending on how long it goes. ... The Rangers are 1-for-31 on the power play in their last 11 games, including the last nine of the regular season.