- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2015

NEW YORKJoel Ward raised his hands in the air and his stick above his head, but only because he saw everyone else wearing a white sweater doing it. There could have been time left on the clock, or perhaps the horn had sounded, but what he knew was that something had happened, and what that something was turned out to be definitive Joel Ward.

Leave it to Mr. April to come through again for the Washington Capitals, who used a goal by Ward with a miniscule 1.2 seconds remaining to take a 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Thursday in Game 1 of the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Ward, the hustler of heroics, fielded a pass from Alex Ovechkin to the immediate right of the crease, then flicked it past Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. He skated into the outstretched arms of defenseman Brooks Orpik and felt the embrace of center Nicklas Backstrom before the cluster fluttered in excitement.

“I just took a hard swipe at it, and it went through his wickets,” Ward said. “It was tight. It was tough to see. It’s not like I was sitting there trying to aim or anything. I just saw the puck come out, and boom.”

The excitement was restitution of sorts for Ward, who had missed an open net by clanging the puck off the right goalpost at 9:54 of the third period and was haunted by his miss when the Rangers tied the score a little under six minutes later.

Backstrom lost a neutral zone draw against Derek Stepan with just under 15 seconds to play, but Ovechkin managed to recover the puck and raced across his blue line. He was met in the right corner by Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who pulled the puck away, but Backstrom came flying in, separating the puck from defenseman Dan Boyle with a hard check.

Ovechkin picked it up in the middle of the trapezoid and, as McDonagh swarmed in, he sent it up to Ward, who was calling for the pass and did not disappoint.

“There’s not going to be a lot of cute plays in the playoffs, so you’ve got to create your chances from forecheck,” Backstrom said. “That’s what you’ve got to do.”

The goal stunned the Madison Square Garden crowd, whose collective voice had swelled to a fever pitch with every scoring opportunity in the final minutes. The Rangers tied the score at 15:21 of the third period, erasing Washington’s long-held lead when rookie center Kevin Hayes’ off-balance wrister from near the blue line pinballed between the legs of Capitals defenseman Mike Green and Rangers right wing Jesper Fast before settling behind goaltender Braden Holtby.

Until that point, it seemed entirely plausible that the Capitals could squeak out a one-goal victory. While the Rangers peppered Holtby with eight shots on goal in the first seven minutes, Washington quickly foiled its opponent’s transition game, stepping into shot lanes and breaking up the blue line-to-blue line stretch passes that have so frequently fueled New York’s scoring chances.

Even when the Rangers cycled the puck, they couldn’t crack the Capitals, who rarely granted their counterpart a clean look at the net. Before Fast’s goal, New York’s best scoring opportunity arrived at 10:16 of the second period, when center Derick Brassard’s attempt to clean up a slap shot by defenseman Kevin Klein was diverted by Holtby’s left foot.

Ovechkin put the Capitals on the board at 18:13 of the first period with a rocket of a wrist shot on the power play that stunned even Lundqvist, who finished with 27 saves. It was Ovechkin’s first goal with the advantage during the postseason, and it pushed Ovechkin’s playoff point streak to five games.

Ward’s own streak, meanwhile, continues. His steady postseason scoring in Nashville in 2011 led to his signing by the Capitals, who advanced to the second round of the playoffs a year later on an overtime winner by Ward in Game 7.

He scored the first goal in the deciding game of the first-round series against the New York Islanders on Monday, then reappeared against the Rangers on Thursday.

“We were just high-fiving, dancing, whatever,” Ward said. “I had no idea at the time. We just celebrated at that moment, you know? Obviously, when we looked up, we beat the buzzer — and it was all good.”

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