The fortunes of two teams rest largely on one player's shoulder pads in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal, and will likely remain there. Henrik Lundqvist is simply the most important player in a series that his New York Rangers should logically not be able to win.
The Blueshirts are neither as strong, nor as big, nor quite as fast, and certainly not as potentially explosive as their opponent. The Washington Capitals know it. They breathed a sigh after Alexander Semin's goal near the end of the first overtime gave the heavy favorites a come-from-behind 2-1 win in Game 1.
"Lundqvist is a great goalie and it's hard to get a nice goal against him," Semin said.
No doubt Lundqvist, who led the NHL with 11 shutouts this season and nearly managed another on Wednesday night, gives New York a fighting, scratching chance to upset the East's top seed. Simply refer back to last spring when a goalie of lesser prominence, Montreal's Jaroslav Halak, fueled a rally against Washington in the opening round. The Caps, then up three games to one, stunningly scored just one goal in each of the remaining matches and lost the series in seven.
Great goaltending is the crucial weapon for the Rangers, who don't have a great deal of firepower in their battle with a team that has it in abundance. Even with their brand-new emphasis on defense, the Capitals' artillery -- Alex Ovechkin, Semin, Nick Backstrom, and Mike Green -- can run up the score. Toward the end of the regular season, Washington struck when it had to and was transformed from a team that went eight straight games without a win in midseason to the No. 1 seed in the East by the start of the playoffs.
"We have great respect for their firepower," Rangers' captain Chris Drury said before Game 1. "We need to play smart, capitalize on our chances and, what can you say, get a great performance from Henrik."
In his last two regular season games against Washington, Lundqvist turned away a total of 66 shots in 6-0 and 7-0 wins, an ominous sign for a Caps team that was already facing enough psychological hurdles in the playoffs. Then in Game 1, Lundqvist stopped 31 of 32 shots through the first 78 minutes.
"Honestly, we started asking ourselves, 'hey, what do we have to do to beat this guy?'" said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. "Even when we did things right, they went wrong."
Actually, the Caps did beat Lundqvist, but they rang the iron three times. Among them, Backstrom, Semin and Mike Knuble hit one post and two cross bars. And Ovechkin had two baseball swings at what were admittedly tough elevated passes, but they would have gone in had he made solid contact. As it was, Washington had a scouting report that was vaguely referenced in the dressing room: shoot high against the Ranger goalie. The Caps felt they could not beat Lundqvist along the ice.
"I don't know if I'd say Henrik has their number," said Rangers defenseman Marc Staal. "I think he's just a good goalie. I wouldn't know where to shoot against him, either."
The Caps think they'll their chances against Lundqvist. On Wednesday, with New York ahead, 1-0, on a goal by unlikely hero Matt Gilroy, Washington evened the score on what both Ovechkin and Boudreau termed a "greasy goal," the sort of garbage it often takes to break through against a hot keeper. With Staal wrapped around him, Ovechkin jammed a free puck past Lundqvist at the goalmouth with a superb second effort. It took a lengthy video review to confirm that the goal was legal. "We need to do that sort of thing against Lundqvist the rest of the series," Knuble said after the game. "Get in his face, block his vision and maybe get in his wheelhouse a bit."
Staal and Dan Girardi played 66 minutes between them in the first game, with Staal spending most of the time on Ovechkin's side of the ice. Ultimately, it was Staal's clearing pass in OT that Jason Arnott intercepted to set up Semin for the winning goal. With a lot of minutes already in their legs, New York's shutdown pair will draw the tough assignment of chasing Ovechkin and keeping traffic away from their goaltender.
"I thought the guys helped me out and played well," Lundqvist said. "We just have to do the same things, and we have to have a short memory."
The rest is up to their last line of defense.