- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 23, 2011

Some sports lessons take longer to learn than others. Or is it that some teams take longer to learn them? Whatever the case, the Capitals aced their final exam against the Rangers on Saturday almost scored a perfect 100. There’s no other grade can you give them after they closed out the series in five games with a drama-free 3-1 win at Verizon Center.

All season long, the Caps claimed they’d finally gotten the message, that last year’s collapse against the Canadiens had cured them of their reckless ways. Of course, they said the same thing after the Game 7 loss to the Pens the year before. It’s clear now, though, that the horror of blowing a 3-1 series lead to Montreal made a lasting impression on them. They held the Rangers, after all, to a mere eight goals in five games barely more than the Rangers racked up against them in that 7-0 shellacking back in December.

It still seems a little strange to be talking about blocked shots, great goaltending and general defensive excellence with the Capitals, because their success in recent seasons revolved around their ability to score. But that’s what won them this series. It’s even what cost them the services Saturday of Mike Green, who took a slap shot to the head early in the second period and didn’t return (though Bruce Boudreau said he could have).

“That’s going to be the key for us going forward,” Brooks Laich said of the Caps’ new focus on goal prevention. “That was the key for us at the end of the regular season. We want to frustrate teams.”

They frustrated the Rangers, all right as witnessed by the Brandon Dubinsky-instigated scrum after the first Washington goal and the jostling in the final minute that resulted in a misconduct penalty for Bryan McCabe. The Capitals basically out-Rangered the Rangers, played the New Yorkers’ physical, tight-checking game better than the New Yorkers did.

Leading the way for the Caps was young Michal Neuvirth, who in his first NHL playoff series outshone Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist, the league shutout leader during the regular season with 11. Neuvirth was utterly nerveless throughout, refusing to get caught up in the opposition’s attempts to intimidate him.

“He seems to step up his game every time he needs to,” teammate John Carlson said. “And when the momentum’s going the other way, he comes up with the big stop. He just seems to have the knack.”

To which Jason Arnott added, “You’ve gotta have a hot goalie in the playoffs. He played calm and collected all series. It gives you so much confidence when you’ve got a goalie like that.”

If there was a surprise in this game, it’s that there were no surprises. The Capitals were ready, the red-clad crowd was ready, even the guy who sang the national anthem was ready. After a dominating first period that led to a power-play goal by Green incredibly, the first first-period score in the series by either club the Caps kept their skates squarely on the Rangers’ windpipes and refused to give the visitors a breath of life.

Boudreau was one of many who called it “maybe our best first period of the year.” In similar situations in the past, the Capitals have had a habit of coming out tentatively and letting the other club get comfortable. But not on this day. “We wanted to go after them instead of sitting back,” the Caps’ coach said. “We wanted to play with the lead.”

We haven’t often seen this kind of Capitals team, not in series-clinching situations, at least. The Caps have had more of a tendency to play like this in backs-to-the-wall games (see Game 5 of the 2009 Rangers series and Game 6 of the 2008 Flyers series and 2009 Penguins series). The last time they slammed the door shut this early and this decisively at Verizon was in 1998, when they finished off the Senators, 4-1. That, as you’re probably well aware, was the only time they’ve gone to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Aside from Mike Knuble’s mysterious hand injury, just about everything about this series for the Capitals was good. Alex Ovechkin was the force you’d want him to be with three goals, regular rushes at the net and numerous bone-crunching hits. Alexander Semin, virtually invisible in his previous two playoff series, got untracked with three goals of his own. Green, who missed a third of the season with a concussion, returned to action and looked like his old self. And Neuvirth, perhaps the biggest x-factor, surpassed all expectations.

Or look it this way: The Capitals swept the Rangers aside in five games, and they didn’t even need a goal from Laich or Nicklas Backstrom. If the Caps can get those two going, well, good luck trying to beat them.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because there’s too much hockey left to play. Instead, allow me to note that while the Capitals have been acting like a first seed is supposed to, dispensing the Rangers in quick fashion, all the other top seeds in the East have major battles on their hands — and one or more of them may not make it to the next round. The second-seeded Flyers are facing elimination in Buffalo. The third-seeded Bruins have their hands full with the Canadiens. And the fourth-seeded Penguins got lit up, 8-2, earlier Saturday by the Lightning, necessitating a sixth game.

But the Caps were the picture of diligence against the Rangers, and as a reward they’ll get a little extra rest before Round 2. “To get it out of the way as early as possible is great,” said Arnott, who at 36 could undoubtedly use the additional down time. “Now we can come in Monday and get ready for the next series.”

As long as the Capitals remember who they are now, they should be just fine.

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