- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

They play the back line, and they’re going to take the backseat.

On a team with Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Sergei Fedorov, the talk about the Caps usually centers on scoring and not defending.

“You look at our team and think offense,” Poti said.

Not anymore.

Game 7 was the time to think defense, and the Caps delivered. Fedorov scored the winner with 4:59 remaining, but it was the defensemen who buckled down in their own zone, limiting the New York Rangers to just one shot in a 2-1 victory that sent the Caps to the second round for the first time in 11 years.

Considered the team’s weakness two weeks ago, the Caps’ six-man unit and 21-year-old goalie Simeon Varlamov were terrific the entire series.

The Rangers scored four goals in Game 1 but only seven goals total in the final six games.

New York recorded 15 shots on goal Tuesday night and averaged only 23.7 shots a game in the series.

“I thought our defense was excellent,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “We really limited the other team not only in goals but scoring opportunities.”

A big part in the defense was the switch to Varlamov after Jose Theodore made a mess out of Game 1.

“We both agreed it should be done,” McPhee said of the decision, made by coach Bruce Boudreau. “It took some guts, but the playoffs are about adjusting and going with your gut, and it worked.”

It worked so well that not only did the Caps rally from a 3-1 series deficit, but they also found their starting goalie for 2009-10. Varlamov was unflappable, flubbing up only one play - Chris Drury’s goal in Game 4, when the shot appeared to handcuff him and float out of his catching glove. Varlamov handled the puck with composure, played perfect technically and wasn’t fazed by the Game 3 antics of Sean Avery.

The other change for Game 2 was Brian Pothier replacing the injured Jeff Schultz.

The pairings of Pothier-John Erskine, Poti-Milan Jurcina and Mike Green-Shaone Morrisonn limited their defensive zone turnovers and even contributed offensively. Poti ended the series with six points, and Caps defenders combined for 14 points.

“We’ve been criticized a little bit for our defensive game throughout the season, but it seems like we’re starting to pull together, and if we’re going to win, that’s needed to happen,” Green said.

It needed to happen in Game 7, particularly during a wretched opening 40 minutes.

Most of the second period was played in the Caps’ zone, but even though New York was holding puck possession, it wasn’t generating shots (six) or scoring chances.

“They hemmed us in our zone for quite a while and they cycled the puck, but they didn’t get too many chances,” Poti said.

The young Caps didn’t get any help from their fans. Nervous energy turned into negative energy, and throughout the first 40 minutes, it was as if most fans were waiting for the worst to happen. They inexplicably booed the Caps off the ice after the second period even though the score was tied.

In the locker room between the second and third periods, Pothier said several players, including captain Chris Clark, Fedorov and Ovechkin - spoke up.

“This is the moment,” Pothier said of the message. “This is the moment you play hockey for at 4 and 5 years old - Game 7.

“We competed hard as a group, but it’s such a team effort,” Pothier added. “If our wingers and centers don’t chip in, it really messes us up and we’re spinning our tires. All series long, we limited their chances and their shots because we did such an effective job as a team, and when they did get an opportunity, we had a goalie step up and make really big stops.”

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