- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009

The cowbell has taken on a life of its own in American culture, from Hilda Chester ringing it to cheer on the Brooklyn Dodgers to Christopher Walken’s “More Cowbell” skit on Saturday Night Live.

It is, though, just a bell, supposed to be used to hang around a cow’s neck.

On Friday night, the Rangers were prime New York cattle.

The Washington Capitals hung onto their playoff lives Friday night by hanging a 4-0 loss around the necks of the Rangers at Verizon Center, filled with the sound of celebrating cowbells, forcing the series to go back to New York for Game 6 on Sunday. That is a game the Rangers, even though they are up in the series 3-2, will feel the pressure to win after their performance Friday night here in the District. They won’t want to face this crowd for a Game 7 - especially Rangers coach John Tortorella, who appeared to get into a confrontation with fans behind the New York bench during the third period but refused to discuss it after the game.

Tortorella remains confident that his team will come out bell-free, though, as the winner of the series.

“We are up 3-2,” he said. “If you had asked me before the series if we could be up 3-2, I’ll sign up.”

It’s a precarious 3-2 margin, though. The Rangers have won their three games by a total score of 7-4 - all by one goal. The Caps have won their two games by a combined 8-0.

The Capitals’ home-ice advantage of the 2009 season didn’t seem to be there for them when they dropped Games 1 and 2 at home in this series. But it was in all its glory Friday night, even before the puck was dropped. If this were going to be the final party at Verizon Center, the crowd seemed ready to make the most of it.

There were already bells heard in the arena when the news went up on the video board hanging over center ice that Rangers bad boy Sean Avery was a scratch. Tortorella had seen enough of Avery’s act (two stupid penalties in the last 10 minutes of the Rangers’ 2-1 win in Game 4) to bench him, and a roar went up from the Verizon Center crowd when they learned Avery was out.

The ringing continued through the start of the game and was fueled with less than two minutes into the first period, New York’s Scott Gomez was called for slashing, giving Washington an early power play. It seemed, though, that the Caps were going to squander the advantage of the fired-up crowd when they failed to deliver on the power play, making it easy for Rangers goalie Henry Lundqvist with sloppy passing. When the Rangers were back at full strength, the arena seemed deflated.

The way Lundqvist had been playing in this series, the sense was that the only way Washington was going to score on him was when they were a man up. So every failed power play seemed like a wasted opportunity. The life continued to ebb early when two minutes later, Washington’s Brian Pothier was called for tripping, and the Rangers had their first power play.

But then the Caps finally got a break. With 42 seconds left in the New York power play, the Rangers’ Michael Rozsival lost control of the puck and fell down near the Capitals’ bench, leaving Matt Bradley speeding down the ice alone in a one-on-one with Lundqvist. Bradley, who has perhaps been the most consistent performer for Washington in the series with his tough play, put a move on Lundqvist and slapped the shot into the net for the short-handed score and a 1-0 Washington lead. The pro-Caps crowd erupted, and the energy was back in the arena. This time, it would not be wasted.

Seven minutes later, Bradley, on a pass from Brooks Laich, made a remarkable shot from the right of the goal that slipped past a stunned Lundqvist, who at first didn’t seem to know the puck had gotten past him.

It was just what the Caps needed - someone other than one of their star players to get the offense going.

“[Bradley] works so hard and is such an unsung hero,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “So when he can get rewarded, that’s great.”

Washington led 2-0, and the cowbells were ringing, including in the owner’s box, where Ted Leonsis was shown on the video screen ringing his.

They were victory bells. The Capitals were 4-1-0 this season when Bradley scored a goal. There were no figures for when he scored twice in a game because he hadn’t done so all season. This was the fourth two-goal game of his eight-year career. And these were the only two goals Bradley had scored in 21 career playoff games.

The bells continued to ring through the second period. Alexander Semin got one quickly by Lundqvist after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff near the New York goalie at 4:57 of the period, for a Capitals 3-0 lead, and Semin’s fourth goal of the series.

It was now time for the “Great 8” to ring the final bell.

With less than a minute left in the second period, Alex Ovechkin took the puck near his bench and skated around and through three defenders before he took an outstretched shot for a goal, his second of the series, putting Washington on top 4-0. It was a “SportsCenter” kind of play, a display of excellence to be marveled at but also to leave Capitals fans wondering how their team, with talented players like Semin and Ovechkin, could be losing to the Rangers in this series.

Marveling, though, was the far more prevalent reaction, as the chant “MVP, MVP” rang throughout the Verizon Center. It was so loud that the players on the ice could not hear the horn for the end of the period and continued to play after time ran out, which resulted in a confrontation between John Erskine and Ryan Callahan that landed Callahan a two-minute penalty and Erskine a four-minute stay in the box for the start of the third period.

The kid in the nets for the Capitals, 20-year-old Simeon Varlamov, continued his MVP-like play, shutting out the Rangers for the second time this series. Washington goalies have recorded 11 shutouts in their playoff history. Varlamov has two of them, and the bells were ringing when he rung up the Rangers as time ran out.

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