With a little more than six minutes left in the third period, Alex Ovechkin finally had the perfect chance to save the Washington Capitals.
He was alone in front of the net with the game, and possibly this first-round series, on his stick. He fired a shot past the goaltender but watched it glance off the crossbar and out of play. Ovechkin’s gaze shot upward in disbelief.
At this point, forgive the Caps if they are looking for help from above.
New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 35 shots, and the seventh-seeded Rangers left the District on Saturday afternoon with a 1-0 victory and a 2-0 lead in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in front of a sellout Verizon Center crowd.
“Again, [we had] lots of chances,” Ovechkin said after a sigh. “[Lundqvist] played great. In playoffs, when their goalie feels the game and he plays great, it is tough to score. We have to try to score goals. That is it: If you can’t score, you will lose the game.”
Ryan Callahan scored the lone goal in the first period, and now the series shifts to Manhattan for Game 3 on Monday night with the second-seeded Caps on the brink of a being a first-round bust.
The afternoon began with a startling strategic move by Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. He replaced No. 1 goaltender Jose Theodore in the starting lineup with 20-year-old rookie Simeon Varlamov, who entered with six games of NHL experience.
“Of course I want to play - it was my dream since childhood,” Varlamov said through an interpreter. “It is not a secret. Anybody who is on this team wants to play. We did play very well on offense and defense; we just couldn’t score and, of course, Lundqvist was great.”
Varlamov stopped the Rangers’ first shot - a weak dump-in from near center ice - but Callahan put the second one past him. Brandon Dubinsky got the puck to Markus Naslund, and a 2-on-1 developed for New York.
Naslund sent a perfect pass from the left wing to Callahan, who had skated toward the front of the net and one-timed the puck just under the crossbar at 7:44 of the opening period.
“[Varlamov] was great,” Ovechkin said. “No chance to stop the puck when they score goal. It was our mistake and they used it.”
Several Washington players identified the Rangers’ ability to transition from defense to offense quickly as a strength after they scored three times off the rush in Game 1. When Ovechkin attempted to send a pass to Viktor Kozlov near the New York blue line, it was deflected and the Rangers went the other way before the Caps could recover - though Boudreau said he felt Ovechkin’s ability to get back was impeded illegally.
Try as they did, the Caps had no answers for Lundqvist. Ovechkin wasn’t alone with a quality chance - Kozlov missed an open net, Backstrom had a great look from close range - but the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist could not be broken.
Of Washington’s 35 shots, many came from the perimeter and few came from around the cage.
“Obviously, we couldn’t get anything by him,” Boudreau said. “Listen, we were trying to get [to the net]. Their defense did a hell of a job of blocking us out. We talk about getting to the net and trying for rebounds, but when we were going for rebounds, [Lundqvist] was kicking them by us.”
Varlamov and the team’s penalty killers kept the Rangers’ lead at one despite New York earning the first four power plays of the contest. When the Caps finally had their chances with the extra man - three in a 20-minute span from late in the second period to late in the third - the NHL’s top penalty killing team in the regular season didn’t buckle.
After the game, Boudreau brought up the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes to his team and to the media. Those Hurricanes lost the first two games of their first-round series at home to Montreal and proceeded to not only win the series but capture the Stanley Cup.
A team has faced a 2-0 deficit 291 times in NHL playoff history, and 37 have rallied to win the series. The odds for teams that lose the first two on home ice are even longer. Washington’s bid to join that list begins Monday at Madison Square Garden.
“Last year we were [down] 3-1 and we came back and lost in overtime [in Game 7],” Ovechkin said. “We just have to score goals. We make one mistake in first period and they use it. … We can say [Lundqvist] is a great goalie, but we are good players, too. We have to score goals.”