WASHINGTON – Alex Ovechkin roared down the ice, tangled with a defenseman and fell on his butt. As he spun 270 degrees in a seated position, he gloved the puck to his stick. With his legs extended straight in front of him, he fired a shot. A hard shot. A good shot.
He didn't score but … well, wow.
The Washington Capitals have been playing on the seats of their pants throughout these playoffs – committing to defense, blocking shots, sweating through tight games. But Wednesday night's 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers was more than that. It was a spectacular display of resilience and team hockey that set up a Game 7, Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
They say it isn't whether you fall, but whether you get up. Ovechkin and the Capitals fought as if they didn't even have time to get to their feet, and they rose to the occasion.
The Capitals kept killing penalties (five). They kept blocking shots (24). Goaltender Braden Holtby kept making saves (30). But they took a two-goal lead for only the third time in the playoffs, held it for almost half the game and would have blown it open much further, if not for the brilliance of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
And the final reason this was another one-goal victory, their seventh of the playoffs, their only kind of the playoffs, was because of a shot that ricocheted off two Capitals and into the net with 50.5 seconds to go. The Caps felt it should have been disallowed for goaltender interference, anyway.
"We don't want to stop playing," said Ovechkin, now one game away from the first conference final appearance of his career. "We don't want to finish the season. We knew we could beat them. It was very intense."
The Capitals could have been crushed by their loss in Game 5. Joel Ward took a double minor for high-sticking in the final minute of regulation. They gave up the tying goal with 7.6 seconds remaining – the NHL added a second to the reported time – and the winner 95 seconds into overtime. Instead of a 2-1 victory, it was a 3-2 loss. Instead of a 3-2 series lead, it was a 3-2 deficit.
But this is a team that was 3-0 after overtime losses in the playoffs, and Holtby was a goaltender who was 5-0 with a .959 save percentage following a loss in the playoffs – a goaltender who hadn't lost back-to-back games in 28 NHL starts going back to November of 2010. He might be a 22-year-old rookie who spent most of the season in the minors, but he hasn't played like it.
"Our skin is so thick, it seems, compared to the regular season," said Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner. "We all just know exactly how to react to the situations. The guys all have their minds right. We're a mentally strong team."
In other words, they're a different team than the mentally weak group they used to be.
It's amazing Ovechkin was able to take that shot off his butt, because he played his butt off – three blocked shots, five hits, multiple scoring chances – despite only 15:14 of ice time. The captain, who had zero shots for only the second time in his playoff career in Game 5, gave the Caps a 1-0 lead on the power play 1:28 into the game, finding a soft spot in the slot, ripping a one-timer into the top right corner, dropping to one knee as he did it. He has 30 goals and 59 points in 50 playoff games. Not bad for an underachiever.
Alex Semin, long on talent but often short on effort, set up the Capitals' second goal by winning a battle with Rangers defenseman Marc Staal. The puck ended up going from John Carlson's stick at the point, to Nicklas Backstrom's right skate in front, to Jason Chimera's stick at the doorstep and into an open net, but no one forgot where it started. Of Semin, Chimera said: "I told them that was all him. That was his goal."
A two-goal lead seemed so strange for these teams. The Capitals had one for 2:54 in Game 5 of their first-round series with the Boston Bruins, then another for 2:03 in Game 2 of this series, and that's it. The Rangers had trailed by two goals for only 2:59 all playoffs. "Guys were looking up at the clock and saying, 'Two-nothing?' " Chimera said.
The Capitals were saying something else shortly afterward when Jeff Halpern took a double minor for high-sticking. Where had they seen that before? "Well, you try not to let it sink too deep into your mind, obviously," said Capitals center Matt Hendricks. But even though key contributor Jay Beagle was out with an injury, the penalty killers came up big this time. The Verizon Center roared.
"It's a big one," said Holtby of the victory. "I think we earned it in a way that is going to benefit us in the long run."
Now it's the Rangers' turn to be resilient. "Yeah, it felt like we were pretty far from where we have to be to win a game like this," Lundqvist said. "It felt like we were not really close until the last 20 seconds."
But who knows what will happen in Game 7? Both of these teams play a grind-it-to-the-bone style. Both had to survive a Game 7 in the first round. They have alternated as the winners and losers throughout a series in which momentum hasn't seemed to matter, from game to game, from period to period, from shift to shift.
Only one thing is guaranteed: Both will keep playing on the seats of their pants, and the fans will keep sitting on the edge of their seats.
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