Last year when the Washington Capitals' season ended, the core Young Guns were battered and bruised. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were playing hurt, Alexander Semin wasn't producing and Mike Green even got knocked out with a hip injury. The Tampa Bay Lightning were able to sweep them out of the playoffs because the best players didn't look at all like that.
Saturday afternoon, the Young Guns were the best players on the ice as the Caps beat the New York Rangers 3-2 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Verizon Center to ensure they wouldn't be facing elimination Monday. Instead, it's a 2-2 series after Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green all scored for the first time since Oct. 30, 2010.
"Young guns?" Green said with a smirk. "Not so young anymore. But we needed to step up. It was important that we got a win tonight here in our building and that it be the guys that need to start scoring. Alex is one of them. Myself and Nicky. So it was good."
The pressure on Backstrom and Green to produce was heavy. The star center hadn't scored since his double-overtime winner in Game 2 of the Boston Bruins series.
"You feel a little bit and you can't think about it too much you've just got to go out and play, same way as you always have," Backstrom said. "I've been thinking about it a little bit for sure."
Green scored in the Caps' Game 6 loss to the Bruins, but that was his only goal since returning from sports hernia surgery in February. In scoring the game-winner on the power play with 5:48 left, he looked like the same Green who was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2009 and 2010.
"He's been wanting to score really bad and I don't think he scored as much as he'd like to," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "[He's been] shooting the puck in, a lot of great chances. It was awesome. I don't even know if he was trying to necessarily score on that or shoot for a rebound. But it was great that it went in, great timing."
Timing is everything, but finding a place to beat Henrik Lundqvist was even more important. Ovechkin beat the Rangers goaltender by shooting the puck off his glove and in; Backstrom did so with a slick shot over the Vezina Trophy finalist's shoulder.
Just score, just produce. That's what the Caps' stars knew needed to happen.
"We just have to score more goals than our opponents. It was very important game for both team," Ovechkin said. "We're pretty happy we take this, right spot and right time. Right now series is tied. We're going to New York and gonna win this game over there."
Ovechkin and Backstrom's teammates can tell when they're feeling it. Backstrom had so many chances thanks to favorable matchups and always seemed to be in the right place.
"You see just the way they're handling the puck, passing the puck. They just show a ton of confidence. They always have confidence, but they take it to that next level," Alzner said. "Those guys were playing great today and we needed them."
It's not an exaggeration that the Caps play better up and down the lineup when the stars are going, too. With the Rangers forced to key on Backstrom and Ovechkin, the so-called "foot soldiers" got more opportunities.
"We feed off our top players when they're playing like that. It gives you energy," forward Jay Beagle said. "For them to score big goals like that is huge. It's what we need if want to keep winning is them to continue to step up and just keep playing great."
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