This time, there wouldn’t be a slow start or an opportunity for an opponent to bring itself back to life. With a chance to clinch a first-round series victory against the New York Rangers and erase memories of last year’s disappointing playoff exit on Saturday afternoon, the Washington Capitals took control of their fate.
The Capitals set a decisive tone in the first 10 minutes of Game 5 that New York could never match, finding their killer instinct to capture a 3-1 win and seal a four-games-to-one victory in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
It’s the first time Washington has won a series in fewer than seven games since 1997-98, when it defeated Ottawa in the Eastern Conference semifinals en route to the franchise’s only trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
“Last year we had a lead, 3-1 [against Montreal], and we thought it was over and we was a little bit relaxed,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored the game-winner in arguably his strongest performance of this postseason. “Now everybody focused and everybody don’t have any relaxes. We’re learning and again we make one step and tomorrow’s a new day, a new series.”
Rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth made 26 saves in another unflappable outing. In the series, he stopped all but eight of the 148 shots he faced in five games for a .946 save percentage and 1.38 goals against average, both tops in the NHL.
Neuvirth received plenty of support from his Washington teammates as well, who picked up where they left off after Game 4’s emotional comeback and didn’t give the Rangers a chance to play from an advantageous position. New York’s lone goal in the concluding contest, by Wojtek Wolski, came as an irrelevant gasp with 31.5 seconds remaining in regulation. That goal followed a stretch of 118 minutes and 17 seconds, dating from Game 4, that the Capitals, and Neuvirth, held the Rangers scoreless.
“We had a huge start, but we didn’t have a pregame skate, so I felt a little rusty,” said Neuvirth, whose junior, minor league and now NHL teams are undefeated in the 15 playoff series he has started in North America. “But the guys did awesome job, [I] took a lot of shots from the outside. All series long I was making the effort, and it’s an unbelievable feeling right now.”
Last spring, a slow start proved to be the Capitals’ undoing when they failed to put away their series against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5. This time, the Capitals did not make the same error. Washington had plenty of energy from the opening faceoff and quickly parlayed it into heavy occupation of the offensive zone.
A plethora of shots greeted Henrik Lundqvist, who managed to hold off the barrage, but only until Washington was given its first power play of the game with Bryan McCabe headed off for tripping Alexander Semin. Lundqvist, who had 24 saves, made an initial stop on a point shot by Mike Green, but when a mess of bodies converged on the net, no one could prevent the Capitals defenseman from poking the loose puck home for a 1-0 lead just less than six minutes into the game.
“We wanted to attack. We didn’t want to sit back and let any opportunity go to waste or let them feel good about themselves,” said Brooks Laich, who recorded two assists. “We wanted to put them on their heels and try and give them a reason to quit. We knew they weren’t gonna, but we were going to try to make it tough on them.”
Washington continued to control the play for the duration of the first, but would suffer one potentially significant loss. With 6:11 remaining in the period, Green, who missed 26 of 28 games at the end of the regular season with a pair of concussions, was hit on the left side of the head by a slap shot from New York’s Matt Gilroy. Fragments of Green’s helmet scattered on the ice, but the defenseman went off the ice under his own power. He returned to the bench but didn’t play another shift in the game.
The five-defenseman rotation didn’t seem to hamper the Capitals, though, and Ovechkin made sure to take some pressure off the team by adding to the lead. After a Rangers turnover, Scott Hannan made a breakout pass to Ovechkin, who streaked up the right wing and powered his way past Marc Staal for a backhanded shot that completed the stunning play.
“Today was his best game, easily,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Ovechkin. “And I mean complete. The other games he’s had flashes of brilliance and then he’s been not so visible. Today, I thought he was very visible. He was on the ice doing the right things and I thought his goal was spectacular.”
Ovechkin’s third goal of the playoffs put Washington up 2-0 just 7:04 into the second, giving the home team an opportunity to stifle a Rangers squad that was forced to take excessive risk to keep its season alive. Those chances led to a two-on-one for Marcus Johansson and Semin late in the third, with the Russian winger potting his third goal of the postseason to make it a three-goal edge, but at that point there wasn’t any doubt of the result.
“I liked the way we suffocated them,” said Laich, whose team has allowed the fewest goals of any in the postseason at eight. “We were systematic, we didn’t give them any room to breathe or any reason to hope that they might be able to come back.”