By Sarah Kwak
For the fourth-straight game in this series, one goal separated the two teams. The tight contests have made for fast-paced, tense hockey, never more so than on Friday night in Game 5. All tied after regulation, the overtime period offered a continuous string of gasps. The crowd collectively held its breath as Washington and New York traded scoring chances, but when Capitals center Mike Ribeiro scored 9:24 into overtime, the release was monumental. He was standing on the doorstep just to the right of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s cage when a point shot that was blocked in front rebounded right in front of him. Ribeiro easily swept it in, giving Washington the 3-2 series lead and setting off an eruption from the crowd and the Capitals’ bench that nearly blew the roof off of the Verizon Center.
Some thoughts and observations from the Capitals’ 2-1 OT win:
• Before Game 5 on Friday, Capitals coach Adam Oates expressed a little worry about his team. “Both [of the games we lost], our start wasn’t what we wanted,” he said. “We gave them second opportunities in our end. We didn’t clear the puck. We didn’t get it out. We didn’t go north.” Well, it turns out his fears were well founded. A lapse in coverage right at the start left New York winger Derick Brassard open down low and center Brian Boyle unmanned in the slot. The two connected within the first minute of the game, and the Rangers took the early lead.
• The Capitals ended up playing on their heels for much of the first period, thanks also to two early penalties taken by Jason Chimera and John Erskine. Now, even though New York doesn’t have a particularly strong power play — actually, the second-worst this postseason — those early penalties kept Washington defending in its own zone, and reduced some of their offensive-minded players’ minutes. Ribeiro, for instance, skated for just 4:47 in the first. The Capitals disrupted their own offensive flow and let New York’s forecheck buzz and establish quality time in Washington’s zone. The Rangers, for their part, got the start that Oates probably wanted to see out of his own team. But starts aren’t everything, of course. In Games 1 and 3, and now 4, the team that scored first ended up losing in the end.
• Special teams have very much been a critical factor in this series. In Games 3 and 4, the Rangers did a decent job of staying out of the box, but they lapsed into a couple of unwise penalties tonight. In the second period, Brian Boyle took a crosscheck from Ribeiro and from his knees gave Ribeiro a hearty and obvious slash from behind. A retaliation penalty is exactly the sort of thing that comes back to bite you, and Boyle should certainly know that. On the ensuing power play, Washington indeed made the Rangers pay.
• It’s time again to gush over Washington’s power play. Oates moved forward Joel Ward into the slot. Strong on his skates and willing to take the punishment that comes as the net-front presence, Ward made good on his opportunity and punctuated a beautiful passing sequence from Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson with a one-timer that whizzed by Lundqvist. How do the Caps demonstrate such precision passing on the power play? Because every man on the unit knows exactly where all of his teammates are on the ice at all times. When I spoke to Oates before the playoffs about their play with the man advantage, he said frankly, “We don’t move at all, no. Another myth in hockey: movement. I don’t believe in movement.” Of course, he means player movement. The men don’t move, but the puck moves way faster than the defending team can react.
• New York winger Ryan Clowe, who had missed the first three games of the series with an upper body injury, played three shifts before the Rangers announced he would not return. It’s suspected the gritty forward had suffered a concussion late in the season, and so when he took a hit from Chimera in the first period, it looked like perhaps he may have reinjured himself.
• The Rangers will face elimination Sunday at Madison Square Garden, but it’s not quite time to pack it in. They did come back from two games down to tie the series in their building, and they pushed their first round series against Ottawa last spring to seven games. What’s more, the Capitals over the last few years have been notoriously bad at closing series out. Since 2008, Washington has played a Game 7 in six of their eight postseason series.