April 28, 2009
WASHINGTON, DC -- Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee stood within earshot of a locker room crowded with happy athletes, giddy well-wishers and an owner grinning widely about his franchise making the Stanley Cup playoff conference semifinals.
McPhee had watched Sergei Fedorov, a player he traded for and then re-signed, score the game-winning goal to beat the New York Rangers in Game 7, 2-1; he watched Simeon Varlamov, the rookie goalie he drafted in 2006, once again confidently make important saves in a pressure situation; and he watched a division champion he built accomplish something that it painfully failed to accomplish last postseason.
"I felt bad for the players last year. They had the game taken out of their hands in overtime with a penalty I didn't think we deserved," said McPhee of the Capitals' overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that ended with a power-play goal.
"It's been a long year trying to redeem ourselves and make that go away. We had to win tonight to make it go away, and to make this rebuilt team feel like the one we've been trying to build."
Down the hall, owner Ted Leonsis was once again explaining how this team, and the fanatic support it now receives on a nightly basis, was constructed.
"We really do believe that we have a team that can go deep into the playoffs and win a Cup," he said. "But in that first round, anything can happen. That weight's been lifted off the team's shoulders."
The Rangers made that weight heavier than anyone could have anticipated.
Defenseman Mike Green said the Rangers played a "perfect" game for most of the series finale, and he's not far off. The systematic defense that stymied the Capitals in Games 1 and 2 returned. The offensive counterpunch was back, combined with what seemed like endless cycling in the Capitals' defensive zone for most of the first two periods. Henrik Lundqvist was, for most of this game, the King that ruled these posts in the first two games of the series.
One of John Tortorella's best moves in his return to the Rangers' bench was a line of Sean Avery,
Ryan Callahan Brandon Dubinsky and Nik Antropov, two of whom combined for the Rangers' only goal. Avery in particular was a revelation, playing a power game behind the Capitals' net and attempting to set up several offensive chances in front.
But there's a difference between chances and conversions, and that's why the Rangers are going home -- they cycled and pressured but didn't score.
"They probably played the best game of the series, and it still wasn't good enough," said Tortorella.
The Rangers lost their legs in the third period, unable to maintain the forecheck they had in the first 40 minutes and allowing the Capitals to begin to carry the play. Captain Chris Clark, back in the Washington lineup for the first time in the series, said his team knew it could wear down the Rangers.
"I've noticed that when I was watching the first six games. The more we finish our checks. It doesn't have to be a huge check. That was one of the things we brought up: Just finish everything. By the third period, it's going to wear guys out," he said.
The crowd, which had booed the Capitals in the second period, was at a deafening level of support in the third. The Capitals -- revitalized by second-intermission locker room speeches by Coach Bruce Boudreau and the players -- fed off of that; and it was Fedorov that netted the definitive goal of the series.
Streaking down the right wing, Fedorov unleashed a wicked shot that beat Lundqvist in what was his series-long weak spot: high, glove side.
"I didn't think too much about it," he said. "'D' gave me some room, then I stopped and chose to shoot. 'D' gave me short side. I guess Henrik went down, and I shot it top shelf. Pretty standard."
Only there was nothing standard about one of the best goal-scorers in NHL history having the heroic moment in his team's series with his first goal of the playoffs.
"He's our best guy. Has more experience than anyone in this locker room. He just shows his leadership," said Alexander Ovechkin, whom the Rangers held scoreless in Game 7.
As Fedorov was at the podium speaking to the media, the Carolina Hurricanes rallied to beat the New Jersey Devils, setting up the dream matchup of the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference semifinals.
It's a spotlight series that will earn attention around the world; and the Capitals had to fight like hell on Tuesday night to get there.
The New York Rangers are going home, but they're going home having pushed the Capitals to the brink in a series few picked to go six, let alone seven.
"We knew they were going to come out hard, but we knew if we could get a couple, they would fold. [But] they played a perfect game against us tonight. It was a matter of who gets that lucky goal," Green said, quickly correcting himself.
"It wasn't a lucky goal. Feds had a great shot."