With the Verizon Center serenading the Rangers on their way out of town to the tune “Kiss Him Goodbye”, the Capitals breathed a sigh of relief as they escaped a playoff series in fewer than seven games for the first time in the Bruce Boudreau era.
It wasn’t easy and it took a physical toll most five-game series don’t demand, but Washington overcame their first round playoff demons in resounding fashion with a 3-1 win over the Rangers.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Michal Neuvirth. “The crowd was unbelievable tonight and I’m never going to forget about this night.”
Coming into the playoffs the Capitals goaltending situation appeared far from settled but Neuvirth has ended that debate after outdueling the great Henrik Lundqvist.
Just how spectacular was the 23-year old in his first NHL playoff experience?
Among goalies who have played 100-plus minutes, Neuvirth is first in both goals against average (1.38) and save percentage (.946). He held the Rangers scoreless in 51 minutes of overtime action and posted a shutout in Game Two.
“From day one I thought he was a great goalie, said John Carlson. “He seems to step his game up everytime he needs to. He’s one of those big save goalies…he’s got a knack for the playoffs.”
Neuvirth’s reliable play allowed the Capitals to come out swinging. They put together a dazzling display of offensive dominance, flooring New York with an early assault on Lundqvist
Mike Green scored on the Capitals first power play, snatching away what was left of the Rangers’ composure and the rest was history. The Caps closed shop like Mariano Rivera in the ninth, silencing the critics who accused them of being unable to finish.
“I think just for our confidence, to get that win and close it out is huge,” said Jason Chimera. “We played a pretty good game tonight and they played hard again. It was a hard-fought game and it was good to close it out.”
The Caps made sure to end with a flourish. Midway through the third period, with a 2-0 lead, it was Washington playing with a mean streak, controlling the offensive zone and suffocating New York’s feeble attempts at a comeback.
Any doubts concerning the Caps’ focus were put to rest by a dominating late-game shift by the fourth line. Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley kept New York hemmed in their own zone for over a minute, bringing the crowd to their feet in support of the inspired effort.
“If we can draw it up, every shift that we have, if we can do that it would be great,” Matt Hendricks said in reference to the shift. “Anytime we get that opportunity and we’re able to sustain that pressure, it’s huge and that’s kind of our job and that’s role on this team.”
Washington could have allowed themselves to be intimidated by the Rangers’ rough-and tumble tactics. However, they didn’t bat an eye as they matched New York’s style of play with an unexpected physicality of their own.
In five games, the Caps notched 181 hits, good for the third highest total in the playoffs. Meanwhile the Rangers, praised for their willingness to block shots, ranked second in the category behind Washington.
Overall talent might have put the Capitals over the top in the series, but ultimately it was their fundamental approach to the series which wore the Rangers down.
“That [was] kind of our goal all series to play that hard, gritty game, keep pucks down low, tire out their defense and try to get traffic out in front of Lundqvist as much as we could,” said Hendricks.
And the Capitals rarely fell away from that gameplan. They consistently got pucks deep, safely maneuvered through the neutral zone and went to the net, leaving the Rangers with little chance to steal the series.
Mucking it up in the crease was a big key and the Caps made sure to do it at all the right times. Ovechkin smashed in the tying goal in Game One and Marcus Johansson tipped in a pair in Game Four to spark a comeback win.
After that Game Four victory propelled the Caps to a 3-1 series lead, the onus was squarely on Boudreau to oversee a trip to round to and in short order.
Easier said than done, but he accomplished it when Alex Semin’s third playoff goal of the year put Washington up 3-0 late in Game Five. Pandemonium ensued and the Caps closed out what they couldn’t one year ago.
Sweet redemption to be sure, but there’s still work to be done.
“This is just the first round,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “We have higher goals than this. It’s fun tonight [but] tomorrow we have to regroup and think about round two.”