WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates with the puck against Brandon Dubinsky #17 of the New York Rangers in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images)
Coming into the game, there was concern about how the Washington Capitals would respond to being up yet again 3-1 in a series. Would they finally develop a killer instinct and deliver a knockout blow to their opponent, or would they stay true to their dubious playoff history and begin the much-too-frequent process of unraveling? At least for tonight, history chose not to conspire against the Caps. The team did their part too, coming out energized, playing a solid 60 minutes of hockey and closing out the New York Rangers with a 3-1 series-clinching victory.
This is the fourth time the Caps have defeated the Rangers in the playoffs and only the third time the Caps have closed out a series in five games. It came about because of a workmanlike effort from the team, with goals coming off the sticks of Mike Green, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and another dazzling performance in net from Michal Neuvirth, who stopped 26 shots and came 32 seconds away from his second playoff shutout.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Think the Caps learned their lesson after last year's Game 5 let-down, where they let in two goals in the first ten minutes against Montreal? They sure played like they did, skating a ferocious first ten minutes en route to sucking the life out of the Rangers and taking a 1-0 lead.
- Just as importantly, it was the last ten minutes of the game that the Caps showed that they are, indeed, a new team that will not let up. The Rangers threw everything they had at them, but the Caps didn't let down, maintained their focus and intensity, and even notched a gorgeous insurance goal from Alex Semin (courtesy of a sweet feed from Marcus Johannson).
- Speaking of Semin, it's important to note that he had a good series, notching three goals and an assist and going +4. Putting together a solid series no doubt helps repair the love-hate relationship the fanbase has with him, especially after last year's poor first-round performance. If the Caps want to drive deeper into the playoffs, they need "Good Sasha" to stick around for awhile.
- For all the back-and-forth about how well or poorly Marc Staal has defended Alex Ovechkin, the final verdict was laid to rest at 7:04 of the second period, when Ovechkin raced around Staal and beat Henrik Lundqvist with a backhand. Winner: Ovechkin.
- MVP of series: Michal Neuvirth. End of story. However, if you ask who the second and third stars for the Caps are, you won't get a unanimous decision. So here are two recommendations: Alex Ovechkin at forward and the minute-eating Scott Hannan on defense. And if you want to argue about who exceeded expectations the most, how about Marcus Johannson and John Erskine?
- There are few in hockey that are better at breaking a puck out of the zone than Mike Green. Whether it's his patented one-man breakout, finding the open winger or patiently ragging the puck waiting for a play to open up, the fact that he can get the puck out of the zone quickly and onto a teammate's stick is why he is one of the game's elite players. Today he put on a breakout exhibition in the limited 5:36 he was on the ice. But let it be known that the guy has some heart too, repeatedly sacrificing his body the past two weeks to block shots, including one that he stopped today with his head (again). Get well soon, Greenie! This team really needs you.
- In 2003 and down 2-0 to the Caps, Tampa head coach John Torterella had no problem reminding anyone that would listen that the Caps had a history of choking two-game leads and that his team was still very much alive. Tampa won the next four. Consequently, for a certain segment of old-school Caps fans there will always be a bit of joy watching Torts melt down against the Caps, which he did again today with his "abuse-of-official" unsporstmanlike penalty.
- Textbook play by Carlson and Alzner at the beginning of the game when Alzner broke his stick, leading to a Rangers 3-on-2. Instead of rushing off the ice to get a new twig, Alzner stayed in position and forced a pass across ice. Carlson played the two Rangers forwards on his side of the ice perfectly, stepping up at the blue line, eating the next pass and turning it into a 3-on-3 opportunity for the Caps. Veteran play by a young defensive duo.
- A hearty "cheers" is reserved for Henrik Lundqvist, who proved yet again that he is one of the game's best goaltenders. Although he allowed 13 goals on the series, none came from farther than 25 feet out. Just about all the Caps goals were the result of taking advantage of Ranger miscues, getting close-in shots and/or crowding the crease. That's not King Henrik's fault. Although his numbers won't show it, Lundqvist did everything he was supposed to do for his team, and he was the Rangers best player on the ice. And as a hockey fan, his play should be appreciated.
- Kudos have to go to the D.C. mainstream media as well. Over the past three days, the Caps were reminded time and time again of the collapses of yesteryear. With all the attention (finally and properly) focused on the Caps, there was no way the team was not going to be focused on winning this game. The media scrutiny and extra attention is a welcome part of the city's evolution into a true hockey-town.
Caps Nation can exhale now. The team finally closed out a lesser team in less than seven games. As a result, 18,000+ elated Caps fans are parading out of the Verizon Center, filling up the Chinatown bars, dancing to the go-go drummers on 7th Street, and drowning out metro stations and trains with pro-Caps chants, all in celebration of a well-deserved first round series victory over a hated opponent. But the work's not done; in fact, it's only begun. A new "race to four wins" starts next week against a tougher opponent and, judging by the subdued mood in the locker room after the game, the Caps fully understand that. They now have to heal up and prepare for a slew of potential second-round opponents, each of which plays a different style of hockey.
But all that can start tomorrow. Tonight, Caps Nation celebrates!