Quit holding your breath.
That is what playoff hockey does to NHL fans. Without realizing it, they are sitting on the edge of their seats, swearing at the refs, yelling at the ice, screaming at their TVs.
Then, overtime comes and it is so intense that it seems like they have completely lost their senses.
The Caps did not lose their senses on Wednesday night, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Rangers. They could have, it would have been very easy to say ‘Henrik Lundqvist is a freaking monster, we are completely snake bitten, it is all happening over again.’
Washington held strong and were rewarded, taking the game 2-1 for a one game to none series lead as Alexander Semin scored for the first time in 15 playoff contests, racing a rocket from the slot to the back of the net in overtime.
“I think we were a little flappable,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We weren’t getting anywhere and it wasn’t until that last 10 minutes where we said on the bench ‘OK, let’s start sending the defensemen, taking more chances and going after it.’”
The Caps have been training all year for this moment. They have learned to play defense, taught themselves patience, taught themselves to do some of the little things that are advantageous when a playoff game becomes tight.
It was scoreless affair through the first two periods. Lundqvist and Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth battled, with Lundqvist keeping the Caps off the board by hook and by crook, using the crossbar and posts as his friends as Washington rang the metal three times in the first two periods and knocked on the doorstep time and again. Semin hit the metal above Lundqvist’s shoulder, so did Marco Sturm. When Mike Knuble rang the post in the second period, even the most ardent of red-wearing faithful had to think that the Caps just may not be destined to pull this game, this series, this season out.
But there was patience.
And the Caps kept to their work.
“That is the thing, we have been through this before and I think mentally we know how to take it and you can’t get frustrated,” defenseman Mike Green said. “Through the first couple of periods there I don’t know how many posts we hit, cross bar, and Lundqvist stood on his head and there should have been a goal. It is just one of those things where you have to be patient and fortunately enough we have worked on our game.”
Lundqvist is the kind of goaltender that can pilfer a game if he gets any type of help, steal a series if he gets into a zone. The metal that encases his cage was his friend on Wednesday, his top pair of defensemen – Dan Girardi and Marc Staal – were his gatekeepers. Try as the Caps might, the Rangers just did not want to let the puck light that red lamp.
“I wasn’t sure at one point if there was ever going to be a way to beat that guy,” Boudreau said.
New York took the lead early in the third when Matt Gilroy, former Hobey Baker award winner for the top player in college hockey, sped a one-timer from the right circle past Neuvirth at 1:56 in the period. The play was set up by Brandon Prust wrestling the puck from Caps’ defenseman John Erskine behind the net and ringing it around to Wojtek Wolski, who found Gilroy pinching from the blue line for the snap shot and it was 1-0 Rangers. After all the chances the Caps had, letting New York steal a goal and the lead could have been deflating.
“This is what you have been preparing for,” Green said. “You have done it a lot through the course of the year and I think some of our experience paid off tonight. We expect to be in these games the rest of the series as we move on. You don’t want to be in this position but at least we are prepared for it.”
Washington kept the Rangers off the board and kept plying away at their chances. Sometimes it looked like the bad version of Capitals’ hockey: shots from the outside with no rebounds, up and down without structure, bad puck movement between zones. But then, on a play that had no right ending in a goal, the Caps tied it up with 6:16 to play.
Green held the puck in the trapezoid behind Neuvirth. In front of him was a 1-1-2 forecheck and he looked at how to break it down. Green has not played a game in six weeks and perhaps, for this one play, that was a benefit to him. Green normally would not hesitate to bring that puck out of the zone with his own skates. But he paused, showing a little rust and lack of quick, decisive action.
So, he skipped the puck almost three lines to center ice where Alex Ovechkin was streaking. Ovie barely controlled it, followed the puck down the left wing, tried to put a move on a Ranger defender and whiffed the puck near the elbow of the crease. We have seen a lot of that from Ovie this year. The dip-and-hook or swim move that defenders have keyed on and know the best thing is to just let the Russian run right into them and squirt the puck loose. Going back through the year, Ovechkin has hours worth of highlights where he has completely missed the puck when trying to put a move on a defender on the rush.
Semin was there for the loose rubber. Yet, instead of trying to pitch one straight over Lundqvist shoulder, he sticked-handled. Twice. Enough time to poke the puck out of his control. It looked like a wasted opportunity and a play that basically started broken with Green’s pass ended broken.
Not so fast.
With the puck loose, Ovechkin whacked at it.
And the red light came on.
It was reviewed, but the replay officials in Toronto found that the puck did trickle through Lundqvist’s pad and the goal line.
“Sometimes you need a greasy goal like that and it sparks your team,” Boudreau said.
Back in business.
The wheels on the bus just kept spinning. Each team held off the approach of the other, through the end of regulation and then much of overtime. As the game wore on, it became sloppier as players tired. More chances, as many misses.
Then, at 18:24 in to overtime, Jason Arnott won a puck battle on the half wall, muscling the puck to a streaking Semin down the slot. The Russian sniper laid wood to puck and it had eyes to the back of the net. The shot was so hard and the play so quick, it hardly seemed like Semin had scored at all.
Ovie was there, giving Semin a bear hug. The oft-desultory Semin was smiling as the rafters shook. He even came to talk to the media after the game, something is does not often do.
“I just saw the puck get intercepted,” Semin said through translator Slava Malamud. “I tried to get open and shoot as soon [as] possible because the defensemen was right there.”
There was Semin, integral to both of the Caps goals. Semin, who shot the puck so many times against the Habs last year that his misfortune was the calling card of the entire Washington hockey club. Semin, who had not scored a goal in a playoff game since the last time the Caps played the Rangers, two years ago. Semin, who has a variety of hashtags on Twitter for his erratic play — #GoodSasha, #BadSasha.
Semin has to be a key to the series for the Caps to win. If they lose, he will probably be a key factor the other way, with his propensity for stick penalties that put the Caps in a hole. For Washington to win, they need their goal scorers to do the trick. If you name is Alex and you hail from Russia … put the puck in the net. All else is trivial.
“For our team, we are not getting anywhere without Alex Semin scoring,” Boudreau said. “You look at the regular season and Ovie had 32 and he had  and Mike [Knuble] had 24 and after that it drops off. So, I mean, we need him to go and create that other offensive threat and I thought that shot … I could hardly see it. Arnott made a great play to keep it in and he didn’t hesitate, he just shot it. It was a great shot.”
So, it is OK to stop holding your breath now. Washington showed in Game 1 that they are not going to let themselves be the same team that fizzled away against the Canadiens last year. Unlike playoffs past, the Caps are not going to beat themselves. A team is going to have to out-perform the Caps to beat them.
And that, as we just learned, may not be an easy thing to do.