- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

The game was less than five minutes old, but one goal set the table for the Washington Capitals against the New York Rangers on Friday, making Game 5 look a lot like the previous three games.

Matt Bradley celebrated a short-handed tally. The Rangers appeared to be sapped of any energy.

And the Caps won 4-0.

In Games 2 through 5, the team that scored first did not see that lead evaporate.

Heading into Game 6 on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, the series has been devoid of any in-game momentum shifts. The only lead change came in Game 1, when the Rangers turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead.

“The first goal gives you momentum, and the statistics are pretty amazing for the team that gets the first one,” Caps defenseman Tom Poti said.

For some reason, the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs has been about maintaining a lead rather than thrilling comebacks.

Through Friday’s games, the team that scores first in the playoffs is 25-10 (71.4 percent). Throw out the crazy Chicago-Calgary series (the team that scores first is 0-4), the rate jumps up to 80.6 percent.

“A coincidence,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said after a full-squad practice Saturday. “It means that 20 percent of the time, the other team wins.”

But, he added, “we obviously play better with a lead.”

During the regular season, the Caps were 34-8-3 when they scored first.

One possible reason why the Caps are better as front-runners is the experience factor. The Caps are still relative playoff newbies - just five of the 21 players in uniform Friday have advanced past the first round; only Sergei Fedorov and Donald Brashear have made it as far as the conference finals.

After Bradley’s goal made it 1-0, center Nicklas Backstrom said, the bench was alive as ever, which he takes as a sign of momentum.

“I don’t want to say we relax with the lead, but maybe we get more energy,” he said. “When we get a goal… it’s hard to explain, but there’s more talking on the bench and we said, ‘We’re in the lead. Let’s keep going.’ That’s always good for us.”

That philosophy represents the difference between a 1-0 Rangers lead and a 1-0 Caps lead.

New York: Sit on the lead. Washington: Add to the lead.

“The games they’ve been ahead, they contract and don’t have to worry about scoring chances,” defenseman Brian Pothier said.

Added Backstrom: “We push more, and that makes it hard for them to create something.”

Where the Caps have hurt themselves is altering their style of play when behind. Apprehension sets in, guys try to play a one-man game and, next thing they know, it’s the third period and the score is still 2-0 Rangers.

“You can squeeze the sticks a little bit, but guys might stray away from the system,” wing Eric Fehr said. “We have a game plan, and as soon as we get down, it seems we change; throw that out the window, and we’re doing our own thing. That’s definitely not what we should do.”

Added Pothier: “When you’re down 1-0, you know you have a deficit and have to dig yourself out of the hole. And a lot of times, you’re pressing and shooting when you normally wouldn’t or passing when you would normally shoot. You almost push too hard to try and create instead of letting the game happen.”

The Caps, though, stayed on point in Games 3 and 5.

“That’s important for us,” Fehr said. “The way we played to get the 2-0 lead, that’s when we’re at our best - playing tight defense that gives us offensive chances.”

The first period of Game 6 will be critical. The Garden is sure to be buzzing, and if the Caps can survive with a tie or go ahead 1-0, the mood in the arena will change dramatically.

If the Rangers strike first, the Caps’ response will determine whether their season is over or will continue Tuesday with a winner-take-all seventh game.

“It’s always good to get momentum because both teams are playing pretty good defense,” Backstrom said. “That’s something we have to work on if they score the first goal [Sunday].”