Eric Fehr abandoned his stick after a hit in the corner and put his body in front of slap shots on the Washington Capitals' penalty kill because that was his job. New York Rangers shooters knew he was empty-handed and launched pucks at him.
“There’s not much you can do,” Fehr said. “It’s a pretty hopeless feeling.”
When one got past him, Fehr leapt at Ryan Callahan to clear the Rangers captain out from the front of the net. It was what he had to do to save a goal, but that also put the Caps down two men in a tie game.
“Those are some real tough minutes,” he said. “Four minutes probably felt like a half-hour in there.”
By the time his teammates killed off all the penalties, Verizon Center was loud and just about shaking. Minutes later the Caps harnessed that energy and scored twice in 46 seconds to beat the Rangers 3-1 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
“Anytime you kill a five-on-three, especially in playoffs, the momentum goes the other way, for sure,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “If they get a goal, they're feeling it. If we get a kill, obviously the crowd gets into it or we get into it. Everyone's pumped up. It's a good way to create momentum for us.”
Going into the playoffs, the Caps' league-leading power play figured to be their biggest weapon and best opportunity to create momentum.
The power play did yield a goal by Alex Ovechkin that tied the score in the second period, but it was a gritty 3-minute, 4-second penalty kill that turned things around and gave the Caps the series lead over the Rangers.
When left wing Martin Erat went to the box for boarding 9:40 into the second period, the Caps' penalty kill was tasked with keeping it tied shortly after Ovechkin scored to become No. 1 on the franchise's playoff goals list. Fehr did his part by blocking a shot with his body, and charged toward Callahan to help goaltender Braden Holtby.
Fans booed as Fehr was given an extra minor penalty after some pushing and shoving because Washington went down five-on-three for 56 seconds. But Alzner, John Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom, held the Rangers to just one shot, and the second wave of penalty-killers made a sellout crowd roar when Fehr stepped back onto the ice.
“Any time you can kill it, first off good for the team,” Carlson said. “It recharges everyone’s batteries I think. I don’t really get too much more nervous, you’re decently nervous at all points of the game I’m sure. Just try to do whatever it takes to get the puck down the ice and hopefully that clock starts running out.”
The Rangers' inability to score for over three minutes on the power play clearly had them out of sorts.
“We had a couple of good looks,” Callahan said. “Obviously you want to score on that opportunity, in that chance, and after that it seemed to swing a little bit their way, the momentum. But we had some chances on it. It’s just a matter of putting it in.”
Suddenly, the Caps controlled the game. “You can feel the winds change a little bit,” Fehr said.
And it took just 1:37 for momentum to crystallize.
Unlikely hero Steve Oleksy, more known for hitting than making plays, looked up to see Marcus Johansson at the far blue line and threaded a perfect pass up the ice. Johansson did the rest, beating Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist to give the Caps their first lead of the night at 2-1.
“That was an unbelievable pass, it was right on the tape,” Johansson said. “I just tried to score before they catch me.”
Given Holtby's stellar play in all situations, that might've held up for the Caps. A year after emerging as one of the nicer stories of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, the 23-year-old stifled made 35 saves against New York, which scored 51 goals in their final 14 games of the regular season.
“He's a very humble kid and keeps it low key back there,” Chimera said. “When he's calm, he's good and he was very calm tonight.
But the Caps' third line didn't take any chances. Mathieu Perreault set up Chimera, and the speedy left wing celebrated his 34th birthday by making it 3-1. It was his sixth goal in 13 career playoff games against the Rangers.
“Every time we seem to play them it's a playoff series and it's a big stage,” Chimera said Wednesday. “It's fun to play against a team like that. Regular season's one thing but as playoffs come around you always want to be one of those players [who's] relied upon to play good and help the team out.”
Chimera said it's better to be considered one of those players than the other way around: a guy who “disappears in the playoffs.” He's the opposite of that, and the Caps had him to thank for an insurance goal that made the third period less stressful.
It was still intense, playoff hockey. Rangers goal-scorer Carl Hagelin rang a shot off the crossbar midway through the third, and defenseman John Moore had New York's best chance with 4:03 left. Holtby managed to keep it out, as video review upheld the Caps' two-goal lead.
It never even seemed that close, though, after Washington's 3 minute, 4 second penalty kill that turned the game around.
“The momentum is gonna change so many times in the series,” Erat said. “But it's how you come out of it that's what's gonna make the difference.”
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