- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Capitals can’t wipe out decades of playoff pain all at once. They have to do it one game at a time. The math is pretty simple: Four wins get you to the next round; 16 get you the Stanley Cup.

But their 2-1 overtime victory over the Rangers in Wednesday night’s series opener at Verizon Center sure felt like more than one game. For one thing, the Caps have had a nasty habit in recent years kicking away the home-ice advantage in Game 1 or Game 2 and making things needlessly difficult for themselves. For another, long-lost Alexander Semin, he of the 15-game goal-less streak in the postseason, won it by whistling a one-timer past Henrik Lundqvist.

This was a game, after all, that could easily have gone the other way. And if it had, well, Capitals fans don’t even want to think about it. But with the first OT winding down, Jason Arnott gathered in a turnover on the right wing, slid a centering pass to the awaiting Semin, and soon enough the red light was flashing and the siren was sounding.

“I actually thought about shooting it,” Arnott said, “but then I saw Sash[a]. That was the only way we were going to beat Lundqvist, to go side to side on him.”

Henrik was indeed stout in goal, as he almost always is. But here’s the thing: Michal Neuvirth, the Caps’ 23-year-old netminder, was every bit his equal, letting nothing through except a point-blank blast by defenseman Matt Gilroy 1:56 into the third period. And there wasn’t much Neuvy could have done about that one, except maybe grow a third hand.

In the past, that one score might have finished the Capitals – as it did in Game 2 against Rangers two years ago (though that goal came in the early going, not near the end). More than a few of their fans were probably having flashbacks at that point, and you could hardly blame them. The team’s postseason history, after all, is a trail of tears. They’ve been conditioned to expect the worst, to expect the other skate to drop.

But the current Caps may be made of stronger stuff. With 6:16 to go in regulation, amid a crush of bodies in the Rangers crease, the Other Alex, Ovechkin, managed to poke the puck underneath Lundqvist before the net became dislodged. The relay official took a good, long look at it, might even have broken out an electron microscope, but the goal stood. It was 1-1.

That told you something about the Capitals, too. There was no panic once they found themselves behind, no abandonment of their new defensive-minded persona. They just kept skating and creating chances, and eventually Ovechkin cashed in.

“We talked about that before the game,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We knew we had to stay the course, no matter what happened. We couldn’t get frustrated.”

The Caps, of course, are renowned for getting frustrated, for “getting into too many run-and-gun games,” as Arnott put it. But they’ve been grinding out these 3-2, 2-1, 1-0 wins for almost two months now, and they seem quite comfortable with it.

That isn’t good news for the Rangers – or for any other club the Capitals may face. The last time the Rangers saw Bruce Boudreau’s team, on Feb. 25, they de-Capitated them 6-0 at Verizon (after beating them even worse, 7-0, in New York in December). But that Caps team is dead and gone, and in its place is a much more responsible bunch that checks with passion (if not malice in its heart), blocks shots with every available body part and generally makes it as miserable for you as it possibly can.

The new-and-improved Capitals seem intent on playing the game The Right Way – which can sometimes mean waiting a considerable spell for a goal. Wednesday night they waited and waited – and waited some more. Several promising opportunities presented themselves in the first period, but nothing came of them. A centering pass would be a little too hot for Ovechkin or Mike Knuble to redirect, or Arnott, all alone 15 feet from the crease, wouldn’t be able to make the Rangers pay for a turnover.

The second period was more of the same. A Marco Sturm laser from the left wing – but Lundqvist snares it. A Backstrom breakaway – but Lundqvist denies him. You were seeing the things you wanted to see, though. You were seeing the Caps out-hit and outhustle the Rangers. You were seeing them get more shots on goal and, at the other end, greatly limit the visitors’ chances. You were seeing them play the kind of hockey that usually succeeds in the playoffs, the kind of hockey that, in seasons gone by, they’ve played only with reluctance.

And then Ovechkin and Semin delivered, and all was right with the Capitals’ world. “You get a guy like [Semin] going,” Arnott said, “you get his confidence up …” He didn’t need to finish the sentence. Everybody knows what a productive Semin can mean to the Caps and their Stanley Cup dreams.

It was only one night. But for the Capitals, it was a good night. Doubt once again reared its ugly head, as it’s been known to do in the postseason, but this time they paid it no mind. Now they just have to come up with three more efforts like the first one.

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