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By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
On Friday night at the Verizon Center, the Rangers had the opportunity to knock the Washington Capitals out of the playoffs. However, the Capitals played their most complete game of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series, defeating the Rangers 4-0 to remain alive in the best-of-seven affair that the Rangers now lead 3-2.
The Rangers will have another chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs when they host the Capitals in Game 6 on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
“If you had asked me about being up 3-2 and going home, I would’ve signed up,” said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. “There’s no sense in being down about it. You have to have a short-term memory.”
Matt Bradley scored the first two postseason goals of his NHL career to lead the Caps, and 20-year-old rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov stopped all 20 shots he faced to earn his second shutout of this series.
Varlamov has held the Rangers to only three goals in the four games he has started in this series since replacing Jose Theodore after the Blueshirts’ 4-3 win in Game 1.
Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who had been the standout player in this series, allowed four goals over two periods of play before being replaced by Stephen Valiquette between the pipes.
Before the game had even started, Tortorella made his first major decision of the night when he opted to make forward Sean Avery a healthy scratch. Avery had taken two penalties late in the third period of Game 4 with the Rangers clinging to a 2-1 lead on Wednesday, after racking up 18 penalty minutes Monday in Game 3.
Aaron Voros took Avery’s spot in the lineup, and the rugged winger had the Rangers’ best scoring chance in the opening period on a right wing wrist shot off a 2-on-1 rush 11 minutes in. Voros impressed enough that he was quickly moved off the fourth line to receive extra ice time, including time with the power-play unit.
With their season hanging in the balance, the Capitals received the exact type of start they were seeking, and the Rangers were unable to counter in any effective way.
Only 4:58 into the game, Washington struck for the crucial first score of the night, and did so while the Rangers were skating on the power play. Michal Rozsival got his feet tangled up in front of the Caps bench and fell down trying to play a loose puck. Bradley swooped in, poked the puck around Chris Drury, and took off on a shorthanded breakaway, finishing with a pretty backhanded shot past Lundqvist to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.
“I saw Rosie fall, the puck’s there, and I was just going to bang it back in, but I just missed it,” explained Drury. “It was a bad time to allow a shorthanded goal.”
The goal came on the Capitals’ first shot of the contest, and perhaps buoyed their confidence after seeing Lundqvist stop 38 of 39 shots two nights earlier in Game 4.
Lundqvist’s aura of invincibility suffered another blow at 12:07 of the opening period when Bradley scored his second goal. Bradley beat Rangers’ defenseman Paul Mara to a puck at the bottom of the right circle and proceeded to send a sharp angle shot between the pads of Lundqvist to double Washington’s advantage.
As disconcerting as the 2-0 deficit was to the Rangers, worse still was the fact they could not generate any offense whatsoever against Varlamov at the other end of the ice. The Rangers continually turned the puck over in the neutral zone, and the times they were able to get the puck in deep to the Caps’ end of the ice, they lost the majority of the battles.
“A lot of things were not there today,” said Tortorella. “I thought we were ready to play. We just didn’t play well.”
These issues were not exclusive to the first period. The Rangers managed only three shots in the first, and followed up with just seven in the second. When they did manage a prime scoring chance with 3:10 to go in the second period, Nikolai Zherdev fanned on a perfect cross-crease pass from Marc Staal while staring at a gaping net in front of him.
“To their credit they came out pretty hard,” said Staal. “We didn’t really create anything offensively, didn’t get any chances on the cycle like we usually do. It continually costs you when you are back in your zone.”
Not surprisingly with only 10 shots on goal, the Rangers were held off the scoreboard through the first 40 minutes of play. Meanwhile, the Capitals added another pair in the middle stanza to increase their lead to 4-0.
Alexander Semin snapped a rising shot from the right circle over the shoulder of Lundqvist at 4:57 of the second period for his series-leading fourth goal, upping the Caps’ advantage to 3-0. On the play, Blair Betts tied up Nicklas Backstrom on the faceoff, but Betts inadvertently kicked the puck right to Semin, who then wired his shot into the top of the cage.
The Capitals put an exclamation point on their dominant 40 minutes of play when Alex Ovechkin scored a highlight-reel goal with 29 seconds remaining in the second. Ovechkin skated over the blueline, sidestepped Drury, put the puck between the legs of Derek Morris, collected his own pass, and -- with Voros hanging on him -- whipped a backhand shot past Lundqvist while falling to the ice.
It would turn out that Ovechkin’s goal would be the final shot Lundqvist would face on the night. After saving only 10 of 14 shots, Lundqvist was replaced at the start of the third period by Valiquette, who made his NHL post-season debut. Valiquette stopped all seven shots that came his way in the final 20 minutes.
“We’re down 4-0 and going nowhere,” said Tortorella. “Why leave Hank in there? And Vally did a good job.”
The third period was about both teams trying to send messages to one another for Sunday’s match at MSG. Three misconduct penalties were assessed in the final period -- to Voros and Colton Orr of the Rangers and to Donald Brashear of the Capitals -- while many key players, such as Lundqvist, Drury, and Washington’s Mike Green, spent much of the period on the bench resting.
The Rangers are 1-1 on home ice in the playoffs, where Game 6 will be played on Sunday, and an impressive 26-11-4 during the regular season. They certainly will be looking to The Garden Faithful for their raucous support.
“We have to find a way to put this one behind (us),” said Drury. “If someone said before the series you’d be up 3-2 going home, we’d take it. So, that’s where we are right now. And we’ve got to get ready for that game.”
|SHG - Matt Bradley (1) ASST: Boyd Gordon (1), Mike Green (3)|
1 - 0 WSH
|Matt Bradley (2) ASST: Brooks Laich (1), Tom Poti (1)|
2 - 0 WSH
|Alexander Semin (4) ASST: Nicklas Backstrom (5)|
3 - 0 WSH
|Alex Ovechkin (2) ASST: Sergei Fedorov (2)|
4 - 0 WSH
|Scott Gomez Slashing against Alex Ovechkin|
|Brian Pothier Tripping against Nik Antropov|
|Colton Orr Too many men/ice - bench|
|Shaone Morrisonn Hooking against Marc Staal|
|Nik Antropov Slashing against Tomas Fleischmann|
|Nicklas Backstrom Hooking against Brandon Dubinsky|
|Ryan Callahan Roughing against John Erskine|
|John Erskine Roughing against Ryan Callahan|
|John Erskine Roughing against Ryan Callahan|
|Donald Brashear Misconduct (10 min) against Brandon Dubinsky|
|Donald Brashear Roughing against Brandon Dubinsky|
|Brandon Dubinsky Roughing against Donald Brashear|
|Aaron Voros Roughing against Milan Jurcina|
|Brandon Dubinsky Charging against Alexander Semin|
|Colton Orr Holding against Alexander Semin|
|Colton Orr Roughing against Alexander Semin|
|Colton Orr Misconduct (10 min) against Alexander Semin|
|Aaron Voros Misconduct (10 min)|
|Tomas Fleischmann Hooking against Michal Rozsival|