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WASHINGTON, DC — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green have been the core of the Washington Capitals for several years. They were the group that helped this team surge in popularity among local fans. They were known as the "Young Guns."
Mike Green smiled when he heard the moniker. "Not so young anymore," said the 26-year-old defenseman.
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green scored in the Capitals' 3-2 victory against the New York Rangers, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It's a trio that's taken heat over the years for the team's postseason disappointments — unable to advance past the second round since Ovechkin's arrival. On Saturday, they were the trio that powered Washington to a 2-2 series tie with New York.
"When they come through, it really helps. And the rest of us follow," said forward Brooks Laich.
The names on the score sheet for the Capitals were familiar; the team's resiliency in the face of postseason adversity is not. They rebounded from a triple overtime loss in Game 3 by owning the first 20 minutes of the following contest. They blew two leads in Game 4 — including a second-period Marian Gaborik goal scored after a total communication breakdown defensively — but didn't waver in their confidence or aggression, winning on Green's power-play goal at 14:12 of the third.
Laich said the credit goes to Coach Dale Hunter and his staff.
"I hear you guys asking about a different mental toughness. It's a different makeup of the team, a little bit. It comes from our head coach. He's a very calm, composed guy behind the bench. I said it from day one when he got here: He runs a tight ship and we draw a lot from him," he said.
"Our coaching staff is very composed and it has a definite effect on the rest of our group."
The Capitals dominated the first period, outshooting the Rangers 14-3 and taking a 1-0 lead at 12:43.
The scoring play began with great work in the corner by Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson, out-battling Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Callahan. The Rangers' Chris Kreider eventually turned the puck over to Ovechkin at the top of the zone, who blasted it off of Henrik Lundqvist's glove for the 1-0 lead — 43 seconds after fans in the cheap seats counted down and did the "Ovi, Ovi" salute started in Game 3.
(The officials, incidentally, missed a sixth man on the ice for the Capitals earlier in the sequence.)
It was Ovechkin's fourth of the playoffs, and came after he was robbed by Lundqvist earlier in the period on a power-play chance.
"If you look at Ovi's goal, it's almost a case of the Hockey Gods," said Laich. "On the first power play, Lundqvist just kind of finds that one in his glove on Ovi's deflection and then he gets a shot that, nine times outta 10, Lundqvist makes the save."
The Rangers tied the game just 1:10 into the second period. Artem Anisimov fell to the ice while carrying into the Capitals zone with no call drawn. The Rangers controlled the puck, with Dan Girardi firing in on goalie Braden Holtby (18 saves). Laich missed a routine blocked shot, and Anisimov waited until the puck was clear of Holtby's outstretched pad to tuck it home, alone in front.
The Capitals took a 2-1 lead on a monster (tm, Pierre McGuire) shift by Nicklas Backstrom, who knocked down Anisimov on an attempted check by the Rangers forward, and then scored on a nasty snipe in front of Lundqvist off Jason Chimera's pass at 11:54.
The Rangers tied the game at 16:43 on a lapse by the Capitals defense.
The puck was sent into the Capitals zone over the head of a leaping Dennis Wideman. Holtby held up his glove to signal an icing — the far linesman called for it, but the closer linesman had waved it off.
Anisimov skated past Wideman, who expected Jeff Schultz to collect the loose puck. Neither one did, as Anisimov fed Marian Gaborik alone in front for the layup goal as Alex Ovechkin failed to mark his man.
The Capitals won the game in the third, with Carl Hagelin in the box on a questionable slashing call — one of several contentious penalties or non-calls on the day, which included an apparent puck over the glass by the Capitals that was overturned on a refs' conference and Ovechkin's leaping hit on Dan Girardi, which Capitals coach Dale Hunter termed "incidental contact."
Ryan Callahan tried to clear the zone but was tripped up, and the puck trickled to Wideman at the left point. He quickly moved it to an open Mike Green who blasted it past Lundqvist (23 saves) for the eventual game-winner.
"I knew I had some time to wind up and shoot. Their forwards collapsed to the other side. Dennis made a great play over, and I just had to wait out that D-man on the block," said Green.
It was his first goal since Oct. 22, 2010, in a season that saw him limited to 32 games thanks to injuries and a concussion. What did the goal mean to him? "Just that I could still score, at least. It's just good to get the win, whether it's me or someone else," said Green.
Said Backstrom: "Before he was injured a lot, we used to see that all time."
For the Capitals, the victory was a mix of old and new — the slightly-older-Young Guns scoring three goals, and the team's newly discovered postseason serenity and defensive prowess — 26 blocked shots to the Rangers' seven — coming through in the clutch as it did in Round 1 against Boston.
"It's a grinding game, and we're a grinding team now," said Laich.
"Talking to friends and family, they're sittin' at home biting their nails and pulling their hair out. They're just dying for a 4-0 or 5-0 win. I keep telling them those days are gone."