By Sarah Kwak
How far the Capitals have come since their dreadful start to this season. After a mesmerizing second half of the campaign, Washington brought its momentum right into the postseason, defeating the Rangers in Game 1 at the Verizon Center, 3-1.
The Capitals are a very different team than the one that took the ice in January. With a new coach and a new system to absorb on a compressed schedule, Washington seems to be a team that has finally begun to feel that it knows what it's doing, and New York will need to up its game if it wants to make this a series. The Rangers need to better their power play and their 34.5 win percentage on face-offs in the offensive zone, and they’ll need to avoid the box.
Some observations from the first 60:
• The Capitals' power play (the best in the league, converting more than 25 percent of the time) continues to be confident and hummed along Thursday night. The Rangers were acutely aware of this, and yet they allowed Washington five power play opportunities. It was bound to catch up with them, and seven minutes into the second period, clutching on to a 1-0 lead, New York paid the price as Alex Ovechkin scored with a puck off the endboards. Hovering around the left circle, the Washington captain has room to roam from his favorite spot on the ice. He can score one-timers or sneak in for a tap in near the crease, as he did. On the power play, the Caps don’t move much, but the puck does; the tape-to-tape passing on the power play is impeccable, and the Rangers will need to keep sticks on the ice and learn the lanes in order to stifle this lethal unit.
• Speaking of power plays, the Rangers could take a page from Washington coach Adam Oates’s playbook. Their failure to convert on the 5-on-3 midway through the second period, with the score tied 1-1, allowed the Caps to seize control of the game. New York had a few good chances and threw four shots toward the net (though only one on goal), but there wasn’t enough traffic and the Rangers let Washington goalie Braden Holtby get easy looks at shots. After 1:37 Capitals winger Marcus Johansson found himself one-on-one with New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who then uncharacteristically let in a soft goal from Jason Chimera 46 seconds later. If the Rangers had scored on that 5-on-3, it might have changed the complexion of the ensuing minutes.
• A bright spot for the Rangers, however, was winger Carl Hagelin, who scored New York’s lone goal when he swept around the Capitals' net and knocked a puck in off of Washington defenseman John Erskine’s skate in the slot. Aside from the fortuitous goal, his first career playoff score, Hagelin showed his assets throughout the game Thursday. His high-end speed might be the advantage the Rangers need to use as they move into Game 2 Saturday, if they hope to avoid falling into a 0-2 hole.
• Notice Ovechkin on the ice in the final minutes of the tight game. Recall Game 2 of the Capitals' series against New York last spring, when former Washington coach Dale Hunter played his captain for 13:36. In Game 1 on Thursday, Ovechkin played 19:30, trusted with the responsibilities he hadn’t been entrusted with a year earlier. With that trust, Ovechkin is making good, back-checking and playing a more complete game than he had earlier in his career. • If Game 1 is any indication, the goaltending battle could be really good in this series. Sure, Lundqvist gave up that bad goal to Chimera to make it 3-1, but he was probably the sole reason the Rangers went into the first intermission with the lead. On the other end, though, Holtby went toe-to-toe with the Vezina-winning goalie, making momentum-shutting saves. He swallowed pucks from the outside and looked confident from start to finish. Since Olie Kolzig retired in 2008, the Capitals’ situation in net has been rather wishy-washy, using four different goalies: Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Holtby. Finally, in Holtby the Capitals seem to have a goalie they’re ready to count on.