- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2009


They broke out the Rally Towels at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. You know a playoff series has reached a crossroads when the home team starts handing out free towels - Rally Towels, Crying Towels or any other kind of towels.

Too bad the Capitals didn’t start Game 4 with the same desperation the Rangers did.

And yes, even though the New Yorkers were up 2-1 in the series - and playing on their home ice - there was much concern in their locker room as the opening faceoff approached. After all, they had yet to solve the mystery of the Caps’ 20-year-old goaltender, Simeon Varlamov, who had been hurried in from the bench after a porous performance in the opener by Jose Theodore.

Varlamov had more than matched the All-Star in the other net, Henrik Lundqvist, which was disconcerting enough for the Rangers. But beyond that, how much did anyone really know about The Kid - his tendencies, his weaknesses, his opinion of the Russian Tea Room?

Still, Varlamov couldn’t keep stonewalling the Rangers forever, though he did manage to keep the puck out of the net for longer than two full games - 6 minutes, 11 seconds longer for those of you scoring at home. That was the time between Ryan Callahan’s goal late in the first period of Game 2 and Paul Mara’s score even later in the first period Wednesday night.

With netminding like that, you’d think the Capitals would have a fairly firm grasp of this series, but no. With the exception of Monday’s 4-0 facewashing, every game has been a struggle for the Caps - and Wednesday night’s 2-1 defeat, which left them 60 minutes from the offseason, was no different. The reason they’re in this predicament is simple, really: Alex Ovechkin, the top goal-scorer in the league, and Mike Green, the leading goal scorer among defensemen, haven’t been able to get the puck past Lundqvist.

Actually, the two have been rather quiet since late in the regular season. Going into last night, Ovechkin had just one goal in his last seven games, and Green had just one in his last eight. Such stretches aren’t that unusual for blueliners, even offensive-minded ones like No. 52, but Alex hadn’t gone that silent since the first few weeks of the season, when jetting back to Russia and dealing with the death of his grandfather.

You can talk all you want about the attention the Rangers are paying Ovechkin, but the fact of the matter is he’s gotten plenty of shots on goal - as he almost always does. The problem is that none of them have gone in. And when you’re the greatest offensive machine of your generation, you’re supposed to be able to find ways to score, ways that mere mortals can’t.

The same issue surfaced in last year’s playoffs, when Alex managed a single goal in the first five games against the Flyers (before heating up and scoring three in Games 6 and 7). It was easier to dismiss then because it was his first go-round in the postseason; it’s less easy to dismiss now - especially after Wednesday night’s loss, which put the Caps in a 3-1 hole for the second season.

If there were any silver lining to the disheartening Game 4 defeat, it was that Ovechkin finally stirred in the third period with his club down 2-0. In the first few minutes, he skated in against two defenders and beat Lundqvist with a blast to his glove side that tickled the crossbar.

Later on, Rangers rabble-rouser Sean Avery, a perfect gentleman most of the evening, gave the Capitals two power-play chances by taking senseless penalties - and Alex asserted himself both times. On the first, he rifled a shot that clanged off the right post. (You could hear the entire Garden exhale.) On the second, he also came closest to sending the game into overtime, but Lundqvist was just too good.

Afterward, Ovechkin lamented an entirely different missed opportunity, the “time Greenie gave me a good pass and I just missed the puck. That’s the game [of hockey].”

So why didn’t he turn it on earlier? “You can’t keep up a pace like that” for 60 minutes, Bruce Boudreau said. “That’s why there’s ebbs and flows in a game.”

A 1-0 defeat in Game 2. A 2-1 defeat in Game 4. This shouldn’t be happening to the third-highest-scoring team in the NHL. You give up three goals in three games, as the Capitals have with Varlamov between the pipes, you should win at least two, if not all of them.

The good news is that this Caps team has been behind 3-1 in the playoffs before and come back (only to get eliminated in Game 7 in OT). The bad news is that they didn’t learn their lesson… and may pay an awful price.

What they have to do Friday at the Phone Booth is clear: Begin the game with the same ferocity they ended Game 4. Or as Nicklas Backstrom suggested, “start the way we did in the third game,” when they knocked the Rangers off their skates with two Alexander Semin scores in the first dozen minutes. For the Capitals, there’s no other alternative.

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