The Washington Capitals skated off the ice at Madison Square Garden Thursday evening having earned a stunning 2-1 victory over the Rangers in game one. After taking the lead late in the first period thanks to an Alex Ovechkin howitzer which beat Henrik Lundqvist high short-side, the Rangers battled back to tie the game with 4:41 to play. Jesper Fast was credited with the goal as a Kevin Hayes point shot grazed off of his right leg and past Braden Holtby.
The next 4:38 was utter playoff mayhem. The back and forth play was tremendously entertaining, the atmosphere in the building was as tense as a bad first date, and overtime seemed to be imminent. It was playoff hockey down to the core.
Then came those final three seconds…
The Capitals played the puck in deep, into the corner to Lundqvist’s left. Rangers’ defenseman Dan Boyle went to retrieve it, and as he went to make a play he was crunched up high and from behind by Nicklas Backstrom. Boyle went down to the ice clearly in some pain, but play continued as, for better or for worse, no call was made. The Rangers then for one reason or another stopped skating, and Joel Ward made them pay as he took an Ovechkin feed from behind the net to beat Lundqvist from point blank with 1.3 seconds left in regulation.
The Capitals were elated, while the Rangers were both incensed at the non-call on Boyle, and stunned at all that had just transpired before their eyes in a matter of seconds.
Stunning, brilliant, or predetermined work of the officials, however you’re looking back on Thursday’s contest, here’s what we learned from game one between the Rangers and the Capitals.
The Great 8 Has Come to Play
As Washington head coach Barry Trotz told the media following game one, Alexander Ovechkin has won just about every individual award there is. While he’s only missing a Stanley Cup on his resume, Trotz did liken the maturation and leadership of Ovechkin to that of Mark Messier, and the Capitals captain is proving his coach right.
The 29-year-old winger is approaching another level in the early going of this year’s playoffs. In the seven game first round series against the Islanders, Ovechkin registered two goals and three assists for five points, and in last night’s game one he picked up another two points. He now has seven points in eight games, he’s skating with speed and confidence, and is averaging 4.25 shots per game, first on the Capitals roster.
The Great 8 is hungry to go beyond the second round for the first time in his career, and his play is proving that. He scored the opening goal of the series with a shot that few goaltenders if any would have a chance at stopping, and he set up Ward for the buzzer-beating winner. Alex Ovechkin has come to play and he’s going to be tough to beat over a seven game series.
Rangers Scoring Struggles Becoming Real
The Rangers only scored 11 goals over their five game series against the Penguins but they won the series 4-1, so why worry about the lack of scoring, right? Well now the Rangers have played a sixth mediocre game in a row only beating Braden Holtby once in game one, and the team’s scoring struggles are becoming something of a concern.Rick Nash, who was third in the NHL with 42 goals during the regular season has scored just once in six games during the playoffs. While he’s been stellar defensively, key to the penalty kill, and is skating hard and winning battles along the boards, the Rangers need their offensive leader to take the reins and lead the way offensively. If he doesn’t, they’ll find their backs against the wall sooner than later.
To put all the scoring pressure on Nash is silly, however, as secondary scoring is arguably equally as important; just look at what Joel Ward has provided the Capitals.
The Rangers are not getting that either though. The defense has accounted for just one goal all playoffs, while Martin St. Louis, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, and JT Miller have only garnered up three goals amongst themselves. That is the secondary scoring that they need if they’re to be successful, but have yet to receive up to this point.
Goals are at a Premium
With all the offensive firepower on the ice between the two teams, there are two goaltenders on the ice behind two very strong defense cores that can equal out that playing field.
The Rangers have been sharp and stingy defensively all season. They don’t give the opposition much space, and are deep from top to bottom. With five of their six starters arguably capable to playing top-pair minutes, the Rangers have one of the best defense cores in the league. Backstopped by Henrik Lundqvist who has been sharp in the postseason thus far, goals will not come easy as game one showed.
On the opposite end, the Capitals have a similar set up. With a new style and approach under Barry Trotz coupled with the offseason additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, Washington is far better defensively this year compared to past playoff runs. And the perceived difference between the Rangers and the Caps, Holtby, appears to maybe not be such a difference at all. Holtby may not have had the quality of work that Lundqvist had in game one, but he had more work consistently throughout the evening.
With two defenses that don’t give very much space, both backstopped by goaltenders who are on their games, goals are going to be at a premium in this series. It will make getting the first goal in every game that much more important as this series wears on.
A Long, Tense Road Ahead
As if these teams didn’t already know each other very well given their playoff history in recent years, the late questionable hit on Dan Boyle followed by the buzzer-beater from Ward has inevitably sent this series from six to midnight in a hurry. Tensions boiled over as time expired, and the always mild-mannered Alain Vigneault was noticeably agitated and flat out mad during his postgame press conference.
AV, asked about no-call on Backstrom: “I’m not going to comment on referees. Don’t ask me about it.”
— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) May 1, 2015
At the end of the day, one win is one win regardless of how it happened for the Capitals. Most people are expecting the Rangers and Caps to both split their home games. If you ask me, that is still what is going to happen. If Thursday should’ve taught us anything, it’s that this series will be long, tough, and increasingly nasty.
Buckle your seatbelts because it should be a fun ride ahead.
Jake Gittler is now in his second season as a contributing member of The Hockey Writers. After spending the 2014-15 season working in Communications for Adirondack Flames of the AHL and covering the New York Rangers here for The Hockey Writers, Jake’s coverage has been switched over to the Colorado Avalanche for the 2015-16 season. Jake can be reached via email at Jakegittler@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Jgittler_hockey.