For one afternoon, the Capitals, who were thwarted throughout three previous contests by the shot-blocking savvy of the Rangers, were the ones who got in the way. Their 26-7 margin in blocks was a tribute to tactics as much as gumption, and the strategic imperative to avoid the Rangers' block eventually produced the winning goal in a 3-2 triumph that evened the Eastern Conference series at two games apiece.
Mike Green's winner with 5:48 to play propelled Washington to a win, but he was one of a triumphant trio who came through, the biggest names on the club sharing the scoresheet, joining Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. Sure the pluggers on the team still plug, but the stars came unplugged on Saturday to lift the team after a triple overtime loss Wednesday. It was the first time the Capitals' big three tallied in the same game since early in the 2010-11 season.
"The big guys were really big today," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "That's the way you expect it to be."
On the winning goal, with the Capitals on power play after a slashing penalty to New York's Carl Hagelin, Dennis Wideman picked up the loose puck near the left boards and fed Green, who first hesitated on his shot before blasting it past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
"I saw [Ryan McDonagh] go down, and I knew he was in my lane," Green said. "We know they block everything. We know not to shoot if they're in the lanes."
A sniping defenseman who scored 31 goals in the 2008-09 season, Green has managed just five this year in a combination of regular season and playoffs, having missed 42 games with a pulled groin.
"It's great to get one," he said. "It's been so long. It feels good to contribute like that."
The contribution also came from the Capitals' defenders who threw themselves in front of pucks with the abandon the Rangers have become known for.
"We can't have them getting all the bruises," joked Alzner. "We need ours, too."
Forward Brooks Laich said his team has gotten the short of end of the bravery points for amassing blocks.
"You know, our guys have done that all year," he said. "I think New York is obviously skilled at it, but we make that kind of commitment, too."
Ovechkin confirmed that there was strategy to keeping the block totals low for the Rangers: "Patience," he said. "If you see them and if they slide in front of you, let them go by and then shoot."
Of course, that didn't necessarily apply to Ovechkin, himself. Washington's captain got his just reward with seven minutes to play in the first period, when he intercepted a blind clearing pass from Chris Kreider, the late-season signee from the Boston College Eagles who has rarely made poor decisions since being introduced to the NHL playoff crucible. With little hesitation, Ovechkin rifled a shot that hit the top of Lundqvist's glove and trickled into the net.
At first it looked like, patience or no, the Capitals were going to have a hard time beating Lundqvist. On a power play in the opening minutes, Washington worked a nifty passing play to Laich in the slot. The forward snapped a quick shot headed just to Lundqvist's left side, where Ovechkin was waiting to redirect it. The play worked perfectly, except that Lundqvist anticipated the redirection and caught the puck in his glove. Washington managed the game's first seven shots, but none more memorable than that one.
New York got on the board early in the second when defenseman Dan Girardi first flipped a soft shot toward the Washington goal that Laich managed to kick with his skates. Instead of controlling the puck, he let it trickle between his feet, and Rangers forward Artem Anisimov was waiting for it. Anisimov first shifted the puck from his backhand to his forehand, away from Braden Holtby's poke check. He then reached around Holtby's outstretched right pad and slid the puck into the open corner to tie the score.
Then Backstrom took his turn in the Capitals' star showcase. Without a goal since Game 2 against the Bruins in the previous round, Backstrom first dumped Anisimov, then took Jason Chimera's feed from corner to slot. He lifted a shot around Anisimov's block and over Lundqvist's right shoulder to put Washington up 2-1 midway through period two.
Soon after that, Ovechkin took a questionable charging penalty when he and Girardi both overskated a free puck in the Rangers zone. Girardi backtracked to find the puck; Ovechkin instead went for Girardi, leaving his feet and hitting the Ranger high but below the head. Expect suspension discussion, though the guess here is merely a fine. Washington coach Dale Hunter called it "incidental contact."
Girardi 's take: "I think he's just playing the game hard, but I don't know. He hit me in the head first."
Ovechkin's: "I just missed the puck and looked up to protect myself." Ovechkin may get a phoner from Brendan Shanahan, but probably not more than a warning.
Of course, the Capitals can't do things the easy way. They have now been involved in 10 one-goal games in 11 playoff contests and have enjoyed a two-goal lead for five minutes in the postseason. Up 2-1 late in the second period, they gave the Rangers a freebie. As New York dumped the puck into the Washington zone, Holtby raised his hand, hoping that either of his defensemen, Schultz or Wideman, would reach the puck first and create an icing call against the Rangers, but instead Anisimov won the race and centered the puck to Marian Gaborik, the hero of Game 3, who beat Holtby from the doorstep in between his pads to tie the score again.
Still, the result and the effort that produced it were enough to make a victorious coach smile, were Dale Hunter the type to do such a thing. He barely cracked a grin in the postgame news conference until someone mentioned that Schultz, one of Hunter's beloved pluggers, had blocked a whopping nine shots on Saturday, more than the entire Ranger team.
"Schultz had nine?" he asked before laughing at the thought and collecting himself. "That's good. Guys are committed. We know we need to block shots. You have to do that to win. Guys are sacrificing their bodies."
John Tortorella couldn't have said it better.