Two of the hottest teams in the NHL down the stretch of the regular season finally played Game One of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series on Thursday night, but unfortunately for the Rangers it was the Washington Capitals who kept up their winning ways with a 3-1 home-ice victory over the Rangers at the Verizon Center.
Washington, which was a phenomenal 15-2-2 over its final 19 games, controlled nearly the entire first game of this best-of-seven Thursday night even despite surrendering the game's first goal to a New York team which closed out the season on a 10-3-1 run. The Capitals rode a three-goal second period and a strong 35-save outing from goaltender Braden Holtby to grab a 1-0 lead in this series.
Despite holding a 1-0 lead on Carl Hagelin's first career playoff goal, things came undone for the Rangers in the second period when they failed to score on a two-man advantage and surrendered three goals to fall behind 3-1. In retrospect things might have turned out differently for the Rangers in that middle frame if Hagelin had been able to convert on his shorthanded breakaway at the one-minute mark. But Holtby made the stick save to deny Hagelin his second goal of the night, and shortly thereafter the Caps went to work.
With Arron Asham in the penalty box serving a charging minor, Alex Ovechkin scored a power play goal to tie the game at 6:59 of the second period. Mike Green hammered a slap shot off the back boards and Ovechkin pounced on the rebound as it caromed back towards the crease, beating a lunging Henrik Lundqvist. Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 32 goals this past season, now has ten goals in 20 career post-season games against the Rangers.
After surrendering Ovechkin's power play goal, the Rangers were handed back-to-back power plays of their own with the scored tied, but failed to take advantage. Martin Erat was penalized for boarding Mats Zuccarello at 9:40 and then Eric Fehr was whistled for an interference penalty during a wild scramble in which Holtby made several big stops at 10:44. The Rangers managed two shots with the two man advantage, but failed on both power plays setting the stage for a Washington explosion moments later.
The Capitals scored twice in a span of 46 seconds, stunning the visitors while grabbing a 3-1 lead. Washington defenseman Steve Oleksy split the Rangers defense with a long home run pass which sprung Marcus Johansson on a breakaway from the New York blueline. Johansson's shot tipped off Lundqvist's glove and into the cage at 14:21 to give Washington its first lead of the game. Less than a minute later the Capitals had their first two-goal lead.
Jason Chimera spun off the left wing boards and wristed a seemingly harmless shot towards the Rangers net which somehow slipped between Lundqvist's pads as Mathieu Perrault provided a screen in front. As the Verizon Center rocked, the Rangers looked to have the wind come right out of their sails. And things did not get better when New York failed on yet another power play opportunity with Jack Hillen in the box at 15:22.
Despite being vastly outplayed for much of the opening period, the Rangers grabbed a 1-0 lead when Hagelin's wraparound beat Holtby with 3:16 to play in the first. Ryan Callahan and Ryan McDonagh assisted on Hagelin's first career playoff tally---after he was blanked in 17 post-season games a year ago.
After talking openly about how they needed to stay out of the penalty box to keep Washington's NHL-best power play off the ice, the Rangers took a too many men on the ice penalty just 34 seconds into the game. Lundqvist stopped all three shots he faced during that sequence, but the Caps were off and running with their red-clad sold-out crowd roaring its approval. Washington took the first nine shots of the game until Derek Stepan shot the puck into Holtby's pads at 7:58 of the first period. At one point the Rangers were being outshot 12-1, but Lundqvist held things together, and then Hagelin scored his goal.
The Rangers handed Washington five power play opportunities, killing off all but one. Hagelin, Stepan, Callahan, and Darroll Powe all had excellent scoring chances while shorthanded as the Rangers were extremely aggressive on the penalty kill. At the other end, the Rangers were 0-for-4 on the power play.
Hagelin continued to be the Rangers best player through all three periods, even hitting the cross bar off a pretty Stepan feed at 9:30 of the final period of play. Hagelin finished with four shots on goal, while Rick Nash led all players with eight in his much-anticipated Rangers' playoff debut.
John Moore came close to bringing the Rangers back to within a goal with 4:03 to play in regulation when his sharp angle shot from left wing handcuffed Holtby and seemed to be caught behind the goal line. However after a lengthy video review it was determined that no goal had been scored.
Game Two of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series will be played at the Verizon Center Saturday afternoon at 12:30 with the Rangers looking to avoid falling into a 2-0 hole.