The Washington Capitals had gotten accustomed to playing from behind — but they never wanted to get used to it. Early deficits in recent games hamstrung them.
"When we come out like we did in Buffalo, it doesn't matter who it is,” goaltender Tomas Vokoun said. "They're going to pick you apart. It's too hard when you're down two, three goals five minutes or 10 minutes into the game — for any team it's hard to come back.”
The solution? Score first — especially against a New York Rangers team that was 17-1-1 this season when putting up the game's first goal. The Caps did that Wednesday, and though they lost that early lead, getting the chance to play with an advantage for long stretches was crucial to the 4-1 victory.
"We haven't had many leads at all in the last little while,” forward Troy Brouwer said. "I thought we played really well with the lead: Getting pucks deep, not giving them any opportunities to create anything off the rush.”
It had been an emphasis for the Caps from the coaching staff to get off to better starts. That's not a surprise given that they fell behind 3-0 to the New Jersey Devils on Friday and then 4-0 to the Buffalo Sabres on Monday. Emerging with one out of four points was just not acceptable.
The Caps got the early lead by taking advantage of a brutal turnover by New York defenseman Michael Del Zotto, as Marcus Johansson put a rebound shot past Martin Biron.
It was a necessity to score first — for psychological and logistical reasons.
"I think when you’re playing a team that’s tops in your conference you want to make sure you’re getting off to a good start,' said Jeff Halpern, who assisted on Johansson's goal. "And we wanted to be able to dictate a little bit of the game as opposed to being on our heels like we have been. They did a good job getting a forecheck going and getting their cycling going.”
Playing with a lead — and eventually a two-goal lead — changed everything. Instead of the Caps being forced to expend energy to come back, they pounced on opportunities.
When the Rangers faltered, the Caps were there to capitalize.
"It just helps to turn pucks over at the blue line,” Brouwer said. "It helps us transition a little bit better, especially with their D men who really like to jump up in the play.”
Able to relax a bit, goals came easier. Halpern talked earlier in the day about difficult plays becoming more possible when doing the little things, and playing with the lead allowed for that.
"Getting the first goal and getting the lead – it's huge in this league," coach Dale Hunter said. "We came out playing the right way and the guys put together a good whole 60 minutes."
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