If you were around the Washington, D.C., area about 10:45 last evening, then you no doubt felt the air temperature rise about 10 degrees.
It was not a weather phenomena, it was Washington Capitals fans exhaling after their team won late in the first overtime, beating the New York Rangers, 2-1, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
There would be no “here we go again” feeling from the Capitals faithful as Washington’s hockey version of Harry Houdini, a.k.a. Alexander Semin, reappeared to score the Game 1 winner with just 1:36 remaining in the first overtime.
Semin, who disappeared in last year’s first-round matchup against the Montreal Canadiens, notched an assist on the game-tying goal. Semin’s game-winner was his first goal in his last 15 playoff games. The last time Semin scored a playoff goal was almost two years ago against the Rangers. In fact, Semin scored five goals in the seven-game series win over New York in 2009.
Semin's two-point night in Game 1 against the Rangers matched his total point output for the entire seven-game series against the Canadiens in last year’s playoffs.
The Capitals need Semin to produce in this year’s playoffs if Washington plans to go deep into the spring. Not to mention that when the talented Russian scored a goal this season, the Capitals were 19-0-1.
“We’re not going anywhere without him,” Caps right winger Mike Knuble told Washingtoncapitals.com. “That was pretty obvious last year when he had some offensive struggles. But he chipped in on both goals today, and he’s a game-breaker guy. He breaks games for you and you’ve got to have a guy like that going or else you’re going nowhere.”
The game itself was a defensive struggle from start to finish as each team failed to score in the first two periods. The game was hard-fought and tightly checked in the corners and along the boards all night long.
The Capitals controlled the contest more than the Rangers did, as Washington had numerous scoring chances through the first two periods.
New York'starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist was very good, but he was not great. King Henrik showed vulnerability and if the Caps were a little more accurate with their shooting, this one could have been a two- or three-goal affair.
Lundqvist, who made 31 saves on the night, was cleanly beaten on four occasions as Alexander Semin, Jason Arnott, Mike Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom all hit the crossbar or post with shots. Washington also missed two empty nets in the first period and one in the second.
Lundqvist did make a few spectacular saves and specifically a pad save after Nicklas Backstrom beat him one-on-one through the five-hole. Lundqvist slid his leg through at the very last second to keep the puck out of the net.
The Capitals started 23-year-old rookie Michael Neuvirth and he was great at times, especially with his quick-catching glove. Neuvirth made 24 stops, but the young Czech had a lot of support in his NHL playoff debut.
The Caps defense suffocated the Rangers at times and limited the Blueshirts to just 25 shots through almost four periods of play. Washington played smart in front of its own net, clearing pucks into the corners and along the boards.
Washington won many key defensive-zone faceoffs. Brooks Laich was masterful on the red dot as he won 13 of 18 chances with many coming deep in his own end. Boyd Gordon also won crucial draws deep in his own end as he won eight of his 12 chances.
As a team, the Capitals were successful 54 percent of the time against the Rangers in the faceoff circle.
Neuvirth's biggest save came midway through the second period when he tracked a pass directly in front of his crease to Ranger sniper Marian Gaborik. On both knees, Neuvirth was able to stop Gaborik, who was standing all alone in front of him.
"Neuvirth was very confident, very focused on the puck and the game," Alex Ovechkin told NHL.com. "In the second period Gaborik had a great opportunity to score a goal and he makes a huge save to keep us in the game. I think both goalies play very well. Both teams score three goals, but I think it is going to be games like that the whole series."
Neuvirth had no chance to stop the one goal that did beat him. Just 1:56 into the final stanza, the Rangers' Matt Gilroy scored his first playoff goal in his first playoff game by beating Neuvirth with a one-timer, giving New York the 1-0 lead.
Caps fans began to see flashes of last year when they outplayed the Canadians in Game 1. Washington had 47 shots against Jaroslav Halak but lost 3-2 in overtime. The Caps, to their credit, did not panic and stuck to their game plan.
Head coaches rarely receive praise, especially this time of the year. Any mention of a head coach is usually to talk about what he could have done differently to win a game. Last night, Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau deserves as much credit as his players.
Boudreau managed his team’s ice time to perfection, and specifically his defensemen. The Capitals clearly had the better legs down the stretch as they recorded more shots in overtime (10) than they had in any of the first three periods (nine, eight and six, respectively).
Boudreau also managed Caps defenseman Mike Green's return flawlessly. Green was on the ice for 26 minutes and 30 seconds, and seemed to get stronger as the game went on. He was plus-one and recorded the second assist on the tying goal.
Scott Hannan logged the most ice time (28:39) last evening but no Caps defenseman played more than 22 minutes through three periods. In contrast, the Rangers' top defensive duo of Marc Staal (33:48) and Dan Girardi (32:50) logged almost five minutes more than did Hannan.
The difference is almost five more shifts and it was a factor late in the game. Both Staal and Girardi were on the ice for both Washington goals, and Staal looked tired in committing the turnover that led to the game-winner.
Boudreau, who was known to change his line combinations up more than a few times during the season, only made slight adjustments last evening. One of those line changes paid off almost immediately.
Semin started the game on the second line with Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm. Boudreau moved him up to play with Ovechkin and Backstrom just before the tying goal.
On their second shift together, Semin and Ovechkin crashed the net poking at the puck, which neither could completely control.
Ovechkin finally knocked it past Lundqvist and tied the game. A long video replay review confirmed it was a goal and the Caps had new life. The 21st goal of Ovechkin’s playoff career was also his 41st point in just his 29th playoff game.
In overtime, the teams traded chances, with the Caps getting the upper hand as the Rangers tired. Washington seemingly wore down the Rangers as much as the Rangers may have worn down themselves.
New York was relentless, playing a deep forechecking game from the minute the puck dropped to start the game. The plan was not very effective against Washington’s big-bodied forwards and really seemed to run the Blueshirts out of gas.
The Caps wore on New York like a bigger offensive line does a defensive line opening up the running game late in the fourth quarter. That was essentially what happened when Staal tried to clear the puck with just less than two minutes remaining in the first extra session.
Staal was unable to get any juice under his clearing attempt as Arnott picked it out of the air, laid it down and slid a nice pass to Semin, who blew it by Lundqvist.
The Game 1 victory was huge for Washington. If the Caps lost in overtime, players and fans alike would have immediately begun to think about the misery that is this franchise's playoff history.
For once, a critical overtime playoff game went in favor of the Washington Capitals. The Capitals still have a few things that need to improve for continued success in the playoffs but I am going to save that for tomorrow when we talk about keys to winning Game 2.
For now, as a Caps fan, I think I am going to savor this one for just 24 more hours.