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If the start of this game was any indication, this would be a tough series for the Caps. If the ending told you anything... it's that these Caps are not going to make it easy for the Rangers, either. In a game in which Alex Ovechkin shone in the spotlight and Braden Holtby was damn near perfect, it was Joel Ward - everyone's favorite playoff hero - did what he does best, and with just over a second left to do it.
Here's Thursday night's Plus/Minus:
- Plus: Alex Ovechkin. It's been said time and time again that Ovechkin loves the spotlight, loves a big stage - well, the stage doesn't get much bigger, the spotlight much brighter than the playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Forget his goal (well, don't forget it because it was an insane shot that only he could make); he was flying all night, with a couple of blistering chances and some strong play in his own end to round out a great night.
- Minus: A late-game equalizer by the Rangers seemed to doom this one to overtime, as the Caps got caught sitting back a bit with less than five minutes to go and allowed themselves to be hemmed in long enough for the double-deflection game-tying goal.
And now, this...
Ten more notes on the game:
- Most teams (who aren’t the Caps) will come out with a strong effort to open their first home game of the series, and that’s exactly what the Rangers did in this one, putting the Caps back on their heels early and peppering Braden Holtby with shots. Good job by the Caps to weather the storm, and start tilting the ice the other direction by the end of the period.
- The usual scenario when the Caps have the extra man is to get the puck to Ovechkin in the "Ovi Spot" and let him fire away - but this is the playoffs, and usual scenarios have no place here. This time it was Ovechkin on the rush, carrying the puck into the zone and sending an absolute laser over the shoulder of Henrik Lundqvist. That puck was in and out of the net before most of the players on the ice even knew what happened... but Ovechkin knew. And so did Lundqvist.
- He only had the one goal, but that was a heck of a game all around by the captain, who stepped it up big time and seemed to gain steam after getting the Caps on the board. He was truly dominant tonight, making the Rangers pay extra attention to him... something which perhaps paid off later. More on that in a minute.
- Fun fact: In the regular season, the Caps are 4-1 when Holtby records a point. His assist on Ovechkin's goal not only continues that trend, but also makes him just the third goalie in franchise history to record a point in a postseason game - and the first in almost 25 years.
- Getting out of the first period up a goal was huge considering how much the Rangers were throwing at the Caps early. Not only were the Caps not trailing after all of that, they had the lead - and it gave them time to regroup a bit and put together a much stronger push for most of the second and third periods.
- A big reason for that? Braden Holtby, who was stellar at times and lucky at others, putting together the kind of performance you need to steal one on enemy ice. As the game got later and later, and it seemed less and less likely that the Caps were going to get much past Henrik Lundqvist to build on their lead, he needed to be superb - and he was.
- That the Caps couldn't increase their lead was not always for lack of trying, of course. Like Holtby, Lundqvist was also equal parts stellar and lucky, stymieing the Caps on numerous occasions... and getting some help from his friends, the goal posts. One moment that seemed to loom large was Joel Ward missing the chance to give the Caps a two-goal cushion by mere inches, when his shot towards a wide-open net bounced harmlessly off the post. Watching the replay, we were all Joel Ward.
- That moment, that miss, seemed destined to put Ward into the Esa Tikkanen Hall of Fame later in the game, when the Rangers finally managed to crack Holtby for the equalizer with less than five minutes remaining in regulation. The Caps got caught in their own zone - with Matt Niskanen skating a particularly long shift, logging a whopping 1:35 - before a puck skittered through a maze of skates to find the back of the net. It appeared we were heading to overtime...
- ...until a couple of things happened to change the story entirely. First, Ovechkin attempted to take on four Rangers and lost the puck into the corner, where Dan Boyle went to collect it. Boyle then for some reason decided to hunch over and turn towards the boards, where Nicklas Backstrom checked him, freeing the puck to Ovechkin. And perhaps because he'd been so dominant all night (or simply because he's Alex freaking Ovechkin, and when he has the puck, you pay attention), three sets of Rangers' eyes were squarely on him when...
- ...he made a slick pass to Joel Ward, parked in front of the net with no one around him, less than 2 seconds remaining on the clock. And this time, he made no mistake. Game over, Caps lead 1-0.
It doesn't get much more thrilling than that, folks. A last-second game-winning goal on enemy ice, and just like that the Caps have snatched home-ice advantage (albeit for now, just ask the Islanders) away from the Rangers. Can they do it again on Saturday? If they play like they did tonight, no reason to think they can't.