- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2015

NEW YORK — Having watched his players slumber through many of their early afternoon starts this season, including a clunker in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, Barry Trotz sought a way to break free of whatever morning jitters have ailed them. The Washington Capitals‘ coach knew the exhaustion of an exhilarating finish on Thursday night would carry over into the next day, so he canceled practice, asked his players to regroup and charged them to enter Saturday focused on an early start.

The one variable Trotz couldn’t necessarily control, though, was how the New York Rangers would respond. Their loss in Game 1 of the second round of the postseason marked the first time since 1996, a span of 21 playoff series, that they had fallen in the opener when they held home-ice advantage, and their discouragement over how the previous game had ended, coupled with their natural talent, would surely leave them scorned.

That ravenous desire manifested itself when the Rangers scored their first goal 38 seconds into the game, forcing the Capitals back into chasing their opponent for a good portion of the afternoon. They couldn’t catch up, and New York forced a tie in the best-of-seven series, claiming a 3-2 victory on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

“The desperation level was higher on their side than ours, and they capitalized on that,” Trotz said. “From there, we dug ourselves a hole that we had to try to get out of all night.”

The Capitals, who failed to win five of the seven regular-season games that began at or before 1 p.m., were outshot, outmuscled and outchanced over the first 20 minutes. The Rangers focused on setting up their signature transition game early, which worked to their advantage nearly immediately when Chris Krieder put back a rebound that dangled ripely in front of the crease.

While that first goal may have exploited one of Washington’s weaknesses, New York’s second goal overcame one of its strengths. With Joel Ward in the box for hooking at 15:40 of the first period, defenseman Dan Boyle finally cracked the Capitals‘ impenetrable penalty kill, letting go of twisting wrister that goaltender Braden Holtby lost in the shadow of a screen from Rick Nash.

The focus that led to a 17-for-17 start to the postseason by the Capitals‘ penalty kill seemed absent at times on Saturday, Trotz said, and he agreed with the players’ notion that the unit was “too loose.” Until that point, Washington was in contention to become the first team to killed off every power play through the first nine games of the playoffs since the expansion era began in 1967.

“It’s one of those shots that 90 percent of the time, the guy tries to deflect it,” Holtby said. “I just tried to stay tight and just misread the release a little bit. … Nash made a phenomenal play staying in there and moving at the very last second. Sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due.”

By the time the Capitals awakened, hitting their stride midway through the second period, the renaissance seemed too late. Evgeny Kuznetsov, their darling of the first-round series against the New York Islanders, scored his fourth goal in nine playoff games at 13:59, and Alex Ovechkin added his fourth goal of the postseason 10:29 into the third period, skating through the Rangers‘ defense and unleashing a diving snapper that rattled past Henrik Lundqvist and into the far top corner of the cage.

Derick Brassard’s goal at 6:07 of the third period prevented Ovechkin from coming through with the equalizer, and as time wore down, Holtby was summoned from his net, giving the Capitals the advantage for the final 1:42. They could not break Lundqvist, who finished with 30 saves, withstanding three shots on goal and four other attempts in the final sequence.

With the evening of the series at one game apiece, the Capitals will return to New York at least one more time next weekend. The schedule, as of now, does not list another afternoon game — all will be on weekday evenings — which, after a tough afternoon, may be a fortuity they can take solace in.

“It’s best out of five now,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s 1-1.”

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