- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NEW YORK | If the Washington Capitals defy the odds and rally to win this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers, Nicklas Backstrom’s shift midway through the first period Monday night will be remembered as the turning point.

Backstrom dominated the Rangers at both ends of the ice, posting three assists in a 4-0 victory in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden that put the Caps back in the series after they had dropped the first two contests.

“I don’t know if there are words,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked to describe Backstrom’s night. “I think the pass he made on the fourth goal was as good as any pass I’ve ever seen. … He was fabulous tonight.”

Alexander Semin had a pair of goals for the Caps, and rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov made 33 saves for not only his first postseason victory but his first NHL shutout as well.

With the Caps in front by a goal, New York’s Ryan Callahan had a wide-open net after he collected a rebound near the left post. But Backstrom was there to get his stick in the way and force Callahan’s shot off the post.

Then the 21-year-old center skated the puck to the other end of the ice and, while still possessing it, rocked Callahan with a hit along the left boards. That opened him enough space to one-hand a pass along the wall to Alex Ovechkin, who found Semin cutting to the net for his second goal of the game at 11:36.

“I don’t know - it looked like he was mad because I saved [his shot] and he tried to hit me,” Backstrom said. “Then I find [Ovechkin] near the first post, and he made a great pass to Semin.”

In a span of seconds, this game went from surely being tied at 1-1 to a two-goal advantage for the visitors. The sellout crowd, raucous at the start to welcome their team home with a 2-0 series advantage, was never the same - and neither were the Rangers.

“So many times during the course of a season you see a missed opportunity at one end and the other team comes down and those are game-changers,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We have to capitalize on our opportunities, and tonight we did that.”

Semin put the Caps on the board first 6:57 into the opening period. Backstrom was in the left corner and hit Semin with a perfect pass near the right goal post for an easy one-timer. Seconds before that, Semin had a golden opportunity to score when he faked out goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but defenseman Dan Girardi was able to keep his shot out of the net.

Semin and Backstrom were put together to start the game by Boudreau - just as they were after Game 3 against Philadelphia last season. Both responded to the union last year with goals in three straight games (Backstrom tallied in four straight to finish the series), and the pairing was successful again Monday.

“We weren’t close - this was a good old-fashioned spanking,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “We just need to take our medicine and get some things figured out.”

Laich made it a three-goal advantage midway through the second period. The middle period was penalty-filled, and Washington took advantage of a power play at 11:29. Lundqvist stopped Semin’s surge toward the net, but Laich came in right behind him and knocked the puck from his skate to his stick and in for his first of this series.

Backstrom’s final act in his virtuoso performance was a spinning, backhanded pass from the right corner to defenseman Tom Poti near the left post for a layup goal late in the final period.

“That pass was just disgusting,” Caps defenseman Brian Pothier said. “He was amazing.”

That was more than enough for the 20-year-old Varlamov, who made his second straight start in net and was flawless. Varlamov made several quality stops, including a great athletic play to kick out his right leg as he was shifting the other direction on a redirected shot. Since yielding a goal to Callahan early in Game 2, Varlamov has stopped 55 straight shots.

“He made a few saves that really bailed us out,” Pothier said. “He really played excellent.”

Still, the night’s biggest save was made by Backstrom.

“I think we outworked them,” he said. “We worked harder, and we were fighting for our lives. That is something we have in our team, and hopefully we can do it again Wednesday.”

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