The Capitals celebrate in front of a stunned Henrik Lundqvist as Joel Ward scores the game-winning goal with 1.3 seconds left in the game.
Alex Ovechkin skated past Henrik Lundqvist seconds after rifling home the first goal of Game 1, and according to one national television account, was distinctly heard shouting “All series, baby, all series!” at the Rangers’ goaltender.
But there’s no way the rest of this series can compare to the absolutely stunning finish to the opener.
The Blueshirts already are down a game in this second-round Eastern Conference playoff series – and in shocking fashion – after falling to the Capitals by a 2-1count Thursday night at the silenced Garden on Joel Ward’s close-range goal with 1.3 seconds remaining. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was livid following the deciding score, as Dan Boyle was hit high by Nicklas Backstrom seconds before Ovechkin found Ward for the game-winning dagger. The sides typically engaged in a multi-player skirmish on the time-expiring faceoff; Game 2 will be Saturday at 12:30 p.m. before the series shifts to Washington early next week.
Braden Holtby allowed only Jesper Fast’s tying goal off his skate with 4:39 remaining regulation among the 32 shots he faced for the Caps, who are facing the Rangers in the playoffs for the fifth time in seven years. Lundqvist played a strong game (27 saves) for the Rangers, but the confident visitors certainly did not arrive in awe of the league’s regular-season champs.
“Statistically, media-wise, obviously we’re the underdog. But we don’t believe it in here as far as being overmatched,” Holtby said before the game.
“We believe we can beat any team in the league. I’m sure everyone does, every team. We knew that the chances were we’d have to go through the Rangers to accomplish our goal, so it’s not a shock for us.
“It’s not like we’re intimidated by any means. We respect them a lot. We know that they’ve done really good things as a hockey team. But if you’re going to win, you want to beat the best and regular season-wise, they were the best. We’re ready for the challenge.”
Mats Zuccarello (suspected concussion) remained sidelined for the Rangers, but two-way defenseman Kevin Klein returned to the lineup for the first time since an Ovechkin slapper broke his left forearm on March 11.
“Ovie shoots it hard, lots of guys shoot it hard, but you get paid to block shots, and you do what you can to save goals,” Klein said before the game. “When I see him winding up, I’ll be back in front of him if I can get there.”
Klein replaced Matt Hunwick in the lineup and was paired initially alongside Keith Yandle, who also will remain in the lineup after battling an undisclosed illness that kept him out of some practices in the past week. Beginning late in the second period, Klein took some shifts in place of Dan Boyle alongside Marc Staal.
Vigneault hoped to get his top defense pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi on the ice often against Ovechkin’s line as often as possible, while Washington coach Barry Trotz looked to avoid that matchup.
Klein played the first eight seasons of his career under Trotz with Nashville and said he sees similarities in the Capitals, who ousted the Islanders in seven games in the opening round, while the Rangers dispatched the Penguins in five.
“You see a lot of how he puts his stamp on the team,” Klein said. “You can tell by how hard they work, and it seems like they’ve been a better defensive team this year, which is definitely one of Barry’s focuses.”
Of course, Ovechkin remains the focal point of the Caps’ offense, and the league’s leading goal scorer in the regular season (53, including 25 on the power play) opened the scoring with a blistering shot in the closing minutes of the first period. The three-time Hart Trophy winner as league MVP fired a laser of a wrist shot over Lundqvist’s right shoulder from the left circle on with Dominic Moore in the box at 18:13.
The Rangers carried a 21-17 shot advantage through two periods, but the closest they came to scoring entering the third was when Derick Brassard couldn’t slam home a loose rebound trickling through the crease midway through the second. Martin St. Louis also was stoned by Holtby early in the third.
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