- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2011

A one-goal lead seems so much bigger for the Capitals these days the way they’re tending to defensive business. And two goals, that’s a veritable mountain – as the Rangers learned to their dismay Friday night at Verizon Center.

The Caps scored twice in quick succession early in the second period – first Jason Chimera, then Jason Arnott – and that was all she wrote, folks. Indeed, two minutes of inspired offensive play was more than enough. After that Bruce Boudreau’s boys went back to choking off the New York offense and salting away a 2-0 win to take a 2-zip lead in the series.

It’s still a little strange to see the Capitals play this, well, sanely. It must be really strange for the Rangers, who destroyed them 7-0 in December and 6-0 in February. But the usual cracks in the Caps’ armor, the crevices that have killed them over the years – especially in the playoffs – just aren’t there anymore (or are much harder to find).

What you’re seeing is a team in Total Lockdown mode. The Capitals are blocking shots, throwing their bodies around, limiting young Michal Neuvirth’s exposure and playing textbook two-way hockey. They’re setting the tone of every game with their defense and letting the offense flow from that. Nobody’s taking any ridiculous risks. Nobody’s having any mental meltdowns. When they play like this, who can’t they beat?

It took the Rangers almost 42 minutes to score in Game 1, and they didn’t score at all, of course, in Game 2. You just can’t win that way. This much is clear: It’s going to be hard to come from behind on the Caps if they remain as disciplined as they’ve been. You’d better score the first goal – and maybe the second, too – and hope it will draw them out of their defensive shell (translation: bring back the Old Caps) and open up the ice a bit.

But so far, the Rangers haven’t been able to do it. They even activated professional nuisance Sean Avery on Friday night, thinking the annoying wing might be able to disrupt the Capitals’ near-perfect balance. But Avery was credited with only one of the Rangers’ 38 hits and wasn’t a big factor in limited (10:22) playing time. The Caps simply weren’t to be deterred from their task.

Amazing, isn’t it? They’ve had tons of trouble winning on their home ice in recent playoffs, but now they’re the only Eastern Conference team that’s up 2-0. The Flyers, Bruins and Penguins – the other top seeds – have all lost already (and could be looking at long, draining first-round series).

Here’s something else that’s amazing: Ordinarily the Capitals would be in a full-blown panic if they were held to just four goals in the first two games of a series. They’d be pressing offensively, people would be talking about the other club having a “hot goaltender” and the Caps might well be staring a sweep in the face.

But in the locker room afterward, there wasn’t the slightest strain in anyone’s voice – nor should there have been. They’re in control now. It’s the Rangers who are dealing with doubt. The Capitals’ Mike Green, let’s not forget, is just getting his legs back under him after missing 26 of the last 28 regular-season games with a concussion. When he’s his normal self again, the Caps will have even more firepower (and be even more of a handful than they already are).

“I felt a lot more comfortable, a lot more relaxed,” he said. “I was able to make a few more plays than I did in the first game.”

On one of them, he picked up an assist on the power play when his blast from the right faceoff circle caromed off Henrik Lundqvist’s pads and onto the stick of Arnott, just to the left of the crease. Arnott, being Arnott, didn’t miss.

Chimera’s goal was another quick-developing play. Brooks Laich passed from behind the goal to Marcus Johansson in the left faceoff circle, and Johansson slid the puck to Chimera in the slot for a one-timer. It’s about the only way, really, to beat King Henrik.

“He’s a good first-shot goalie,” Chimera said. “He doesn’t let many in. You’ve gotta make him move, which is what we did on both our goals.” (And on Alexander Semin’s overtime score in Game 1, for that matter.)

Granted, it’s only two games, and all the Capitals have done is hold serve. But this is no ordinary 1-vs.-8 matchup. A mere 14 points separated these teams in the final standings; what’s more, the Rangers seemed to have the Caps’ number in regular season.

Capitals fans can’t be anything but encouraged by their club’s strong start. These Caps, after all, can do a lot with a little. In Game 1, two goals were all they needed to win. In Game 2, one was really enough. What happens if their offense, particularly the power play, ever gets totally untracked?

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