In a game that had serious implications for both the Rangers and the Capitals as potential first-round opponents, the outcome was never seriously in doubt. Alexander Ovechkin scored 32 seconds in and the Capitals rolled to an easy 4-1 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers. Despite the loss, the Rangers could still win the Presidents' Trophy as the best regular season team in the NHL, and with the win, the Capitals have moved up to the 7th seed and are poised to face the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. Even with the win, the Southeast Division has a new champion for the first time in 5 years, and the Capitals will start the playoffs on the road.
The Capitals struck early and often, judiciously firing shots on goal as if they were a limited commodity. They had a few turnovers and neutral zone breakdowns that led to Rangers scoring chances, most apparently on their last powerplay of the game, but none that cost them. The Capitals played like the fast and loose team we had been expecting them to be all season, lighthearted after qualifying for the playoffs, letting their talent and seemingly effortless control of their new system lead them to victory.
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images
The NBC Sports broadcast crew had barely begun showing the New York Rangers' lines when Alexander Ovechkin potted his goal in the opening seconds. Brooks Laich won a draw over Derek Stepan and pulled the puck back to Ovechkin at the top of the circle. Ovechkin immediately rifled a wrist shot through a screen and Vezina Trophy-candidate Henrik Lundqvist for a lead the Capitals never relinquished. Right after the ensuing center-ice faceoff, Ovechkin set the physical tone by plowing Rangers shutdown defenseman Dan Girardi. On his next shift, he ran over Derek Stepan, too.
Less than 2 minutes later, Keith Aucoin forced a turnover in the Rangers zone along the wall and handed the puck off to Roman Hamrlik. Hamrlik walked the blueline toward the center before firing a high wrist shot into traffic where Mathieu Perreault tipped it down and through Lundqvist for a quick 2-0 lead. Even with 2 goals on 2 shots, it would be difficult to pin any of the goals on the evening on Lundqvist, even with his hurt hand. Once that goal went in, the arena fell eerily quiet.
It wasn't until 6 and a half minutes into the game that the Rangers got sustained pressure in the Capitals zone. While the Capitals' offense got the Capitals the lead, Capitals rookie goaltender Braden Holtby made it stand up. Once the Capitals held a 6-1 lead in shots, the Rangers out-shot the game 35-11 the rest of the way, not including 2 goal posts. Rangers' 41-goal scorer Marian Gaborik had 6 shots on goal on the night, seemingly all from about 10 feet away with no Caps defenders in sight, and Holtby handled all 6 shots with aplomb.
The Capitals got two straight powerplays to close the period. Seven seconds after the Rangers foiled the Capitals' opportunity created by a Brad Richards offensive zoone hooking penalty, defenseman Ryan McDonagh chipped the puck over the glass. For nearly 4 straight minutes, it looked like the Capitals would end the season on a powerplay slide, but then the Caps got the puck in deep with control. Marcus Johansson got the puck behind the net and moved the puck to Nicklas Backstrom on the half-wall. Backstrom, finally healthy and in shape, also had his first chance in space with the puck with no penalty killers around, and moved the puck to John Carlson at the point. Carlson made no mistake, blasting a shot from the point that deflected off Derek Stepan and over Lundqvist's shoulder for a 3-0 lead.
The Rangers spent the second period chasing the puck and were repeatedly caught cheating by the Capitals for several odd-man rushes. Nicklas Backstrom was on the receiving end of two of these, scoring on the first shot and watching his second slide into Lundqvist's glove several minutes later. The two-point night marked Backstrom's first points since his concussion in early January, but he was not done marking up the scoresheet.
Just past the midway point of the period, the size mismatch of the evening resulted in a Rangers goal. Giant 6'7, 250-lb Rangers center Brian Boyle was being marked by 5'10, 175-lb Capitals center Mathieu Perreault behind the Capitals goal. Boyle shrugged off Perreault and buried a wrap around rebound through Holtby's pads for a garbage-time goal that re-energized the home team and crowd. Less than a minute after that goal, and in a rare display of scrappiness, Backstrom and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan got into a shoving match that cost Backstrom his helmet and sent both players to the penalty box for roughing.
The rest of the game was marked by a few fruitless powerplays and panicked pressure by the Rangers that resulted in Holtby increasing his save percentage. The Capitals still attacked when they got the chance, but they played within their system and kept the Rangers from chipping away at their lead. If the Capitals can rein in their neutral zone giveaways, the last two games serve as a good omen for the opening of their playoff series with Boston.