Stu Hackel
Sunday April 24th, 2011

A bit more than a year ago, many Washington Capitals fans were preparing to celebrate a Stanley Cup championship before the 2010 playoffs even began, after their high-octane, offense-oriented club won the Presidents' Trophy for finishing first in the regular season. Then they were confronted by the reality of playoff hockey -- and the Caps' inability to adapt to a different style -- which led to a first-round knockout at the hands of Montreal.

Now retooled into a grittier, defensive group, thanks to in-season changes by coach Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee, the Capitals eliminated the Rangers on Saturday afternoon with a 3-1 win on home ice to capture their opening-round series in five games.

The Capitals did it by allowing only eight Rangers goals in five games, the fewest surrendered by any team in the first round. Riding the solid work of goalie Michal Neuvirth, who had never played Stanley Cup-playoff hockey before this series, and the dedication to a more structured approach, Washington looks like a more mature and confident team than last year -- one that could be poised for a deep run.

While last year's Caps rejoiced in putting their skills on display in wonderful open-ice spectacles led by Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Mike Green, this year's club is content to grind out victories by pushing the play to the boards and winning the tough battles there, in the corners and in front of the net. That's how they began Saturday's game and ultimately what gave them the victory.

So the Caps will move on, and New York will examine how to improve. This year's experience was a very positive -- and popular -- one for the Blueshirts, a young team that is growing together. They didn't have the services of their heart-and-soul leader, Ryan Callahan, who missed the playoffs with a broken foot suffered at the end of the regular season. But they will also have to somehow address the lingering need for an elite-impact center who can get more out of Marian Gaborik, who slumped this season, and someone to run their power play, which was a miserable 1-for-20 in the series.

The first period set the tone for the entire game and belonged to the Caps, who outshot the Rangers 13-6 and got the only goal, a Green tally on the power play. Although the Rangers worked hard in their characteristic fashion, they were outworked in the first 20 minutes, as Washington raised its play to a level New York could not reach.

The 1-0 scoreline flattered the Rangers as the Caps spent far more time in New York's end than the Rangers did in their offensive zone. In addition to the 13 shots the Caps directed on goal, the Rangers blocked another 13 and another 10 missed the net. Those 36 shots in the first 20 minutes are a big number, especially compared to 12 (6 on net, 1 miss and 5 blocked by the Caps) for the Rangers. And that accurately reflected the run of play.

Washington started generating momentum about four minutes into the contest when Boudreau was able to get his top line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Chimera on the ice against the Rangers' defensive tandem of Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer. Coach John Tortorella wanted to use the pairing of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi against the Caps' top line, but as the home coach, Boudreau was able to get his players out last after a stoppage.

That led to some sustained pressure the Caps were able to build upon, establishing a momentum they almost never lost. Soon, it didn't matter which Rangers were matched up against which Capitals. The rink was tilted Washington's way and it forced Rangers defenseman Bryan McCabe into a tripping penalty at 5:42.

Shortly after the faceoff, Ovechkin got the puck on the point, and passed across to Green who moved in and shot. Lundqvist stopped it with a cluster of Rangers in front of him and after a scramble it came out to Ovechkin again. He faked a shot, froze some defenders, then again passed over to Green, who shot and then moved in. The shot bounced off someone in front, a wild scramble ensued and the puck squirted below the icing line -- where Green had moved. He whacked the puck toward the goal, it bouncied off Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi -- who was on his knees in front of the net after Lundqvist had moved out trying to smother the loose puck -- and crossed the line for the opening tally.

Washington continued to consistently won puck battles along the boards and in the corners leading to shots. In one flurry about 12 minutes into the period, the Caps forced Lundqvist into making three tough saves, extending his legs and doing the splits to kick the puck away from the goal.

When the Rangers got chances, they couldn't do much, as the Caps quickly regained possession and moved the other way. But on one of those brief Rangers forays, Green dove to block a shot by Matt Gilroy that hit him on the side of the head, breaking his helmet. A former first-team All-Star defenseman who missed a large chunk of the season recovering from a concussion he sustained when similarly blocking a shot in February, Green left the game and never returned to on-ice action.

Green's absence didn't affect the Caps in this game, but should he be unable to play in the next round, it could have a serious impact. He was the only player to score in each of Washington's five playoff games and was second to Ovechkin in team scoring with a goal and four assists.

The second period began the same way the first went, with Washington getting pucks behind the Rangers' defense and banging away, keeping it in the Rangers' end. When New York began initiating a forecheck of their own, the Caps were able to disrupt it and turn the play the other way.

That's how the Caps scored their second goal. Jeff Schultz and Backstrom outbattled Brandon Dubinsky and Wojtek Wolski for the puck in the corner and Backstrom quickly passed it up ice to Brooks Laich, who relayed further up to defenseman Scott Hannan. He found Ovechkin streaking down the right side with only Staal to beat. Ovechkin beat Staal to the outside, then cut in front of Lundqvist and deposited a backhander just inside the far post for the Caps second goal at 7:02 of the period.

The Rangers were able to generate a bit more offense in the second, in part because of Capitals' penalties. But good goaltending by Neuvirth and strong team defending in front of him prevented the Rangers from getting many second chances after they did get shots on goal.

The game proceeded much the same way into the first half of the third and Washington almost extended its lead when two of the speedier Caps, Chimera and Marcus Johansson, broke in with only Girardi back. Chimera got Girardi to commit to him and he passed perfectly to Johanssen, but the shot went just wide.

That led to another sustained surge by the Caps, who did not sit back but kept pushing the play forward.

Then about halfway through, during a TV timeout, Boudreau called his team together and NBC's Pierre McGuire overheard the instructions to pull back into a more defensive shell and not allow any odd-man rushes by New York. The Caps no longer forechecked, but retreated to effectively clog up the neutral zone. When the Rangers were able to shoot it in deep, layers of Caps defenders prevented any serious chances.

It forced the Rangers to gamble and one of the gambles led to the Caps' third goal. With about four minutes left in the period, the puck moved up the boards out of Washington's zone and Girardi skated over attempting to keep it in. But Marco Sturm beat him to it and chipped it past Girardi where Johhanssen gathered it in and was able to break in 2-on-1 with Semin, with only Staal back defending. This time the odd-man rush worked as Semin took the pass and beat Lundqvist at 16:23.

Tortorella pulled Lundqvist for the extra attacker and Wolski got one goal back for New York with a half minute remaining in the game, after which one of the many post-whistle wrestling matches took place. And while the Rangers never showed any signs of defeat, they were the second best-team in this game and in this series.

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