- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2011

NEW YORK | As so often happens in playoff hockey, the more desperate team won Sunday. That would be John Tortorella’s rough-and-tumble Rangers, who were in a 2-0 hole in the series and – at Verizon Center, at least – couldn’t find the back of the net with a GPS.

Nothing comes easy against the Capitals, though, and this game was no different. A mere 1:39 was left when Brandon Dubinsky crashed the crease and got off a shot that (a.) glanced off Alex Ovechkin’s stick and (b.) went over Michal Neuvirth’s shoulder to give New York a 3-2 season-saving win. Until then, it looked like the clubs were headed to overtime again – and who knows how that would have turned out?

The Rangers don’t even want to think about it. Besides, they’d much rather think about getting, finally, that bit of luck their coach said was “our biggest key” before the game – “just to get something good to happen for us offensively.

“I look at their second goal the other night,” Tortorella said, “which was a huge goal. We defended the power play the right way, and [the puck] deflects off of [defenseman Matt] Gilroy’s skate right onto [Jason] Arnott’s stick and he buries it [to turn a 1-0 game into a 2-0 game]. I’m just hoping something like that happens for us.”

Well, something like that happened for them, and now we’ve got ourselves a series. Game 4 is back at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, and the Capitals, in the next 72 hours, need to find a way to match the Rangers’ intensity.

“We knew they were going to come out strong,” Matt Bradley said. “I thought we got outworked tonight.”

Bradley’s right, of course. There was nothing about this game that should have surprised the Caps. Tortorella left little doubt that his players would respond to their dire circumstances by playing physical “playoff hockey.” They didn’t do that as much as he would have liked earlier in the series – didn’t have “enough jam,” as he put it – and he addressed the issue with them. “But I don’t have to tell them that [before Game 3],” he said. “It’s [more] a matter of keeping under control, because you could put yourself in a bad spot and allow a power-play goal to hurt you.”

As it turned out, it was the Capitals who couldn’t keep themselves under control. They took five straight penalties at one point, eight in all, and gave the Rangers a 5-on-3 for 1:25 late in the second period. Granted, the Rangers’ “feistiness” will bring that out in anybody, but it’s been a long time since the Caps played so irresponsibly.

“We took some penalties we shouldn’t take,” Bradley said. “We were taking part in the scrums after the whistle. In the playoffs you just have to suck it up” – even if “it” is a punch in the puss.

Still, even though the Capitals played catch-up all afternoon – falling behind 1-0 and then 2-1 – the game was still winnable. They even enjoyed some divine intervention themselves when an apparent goal by the Rangers’ Ruslan Fedotenko at the end of the second period was disallowed by the replay officials. (It didn’t cross the goal line, they ruled, until after time had run out.)

The Caps can only hope they don’t rue this missed opportunity the way they did the one in Pittsburgh two years ago, when they had the Penguins down 2-0 in the series and took them to OT in Game 3 – only to have the Pens escape. (Sorry, but these things tend to go through your mind when you’ve been following this franchise as long as I have.)

Of more immediate concern for the Capitals is the crowd of New Yorkers that keeps collecting in front of their net. Cramping Neuvirth’s style – and knocking him around whenever they get the chance – “has been the Rangers’ game plan,” Mike Knuble said. “We’ve seen it in every game. They hang around the net and try to jam it in.”

What can be done about this? Aside from sheer physical force – moving people out of there – “we can definitely be better at getting the puck out,” Knuble said. “We can’t have their ‘D’ pinching in and firing the puck back in all the time. We can also do a better job in the offensive end of doing exactly what they’re doing.”

Actually, the Caps did pretty well in that department Sunday. Both of their goals – Ovechkin’s tap-in in the second period and Knuble’s rebound in the third – were from close range. The Rangers were just a little better at it.

All in all, it was classic playoff hockey. And there’s more to come, maybe much more. The Rangers are now Officially Roused.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy series,” Bradley said. With the Capitals, who have gone the full seven games every time in the last three postseasons, it never is.

• Dan Daly can be reached at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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