The penultimate “game that mattered” was probably the Caps’ high point of the season, the product of some other “games that mattered”…
April 20, 2011: Washington at New York Rangers, Game 4, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Result: Capitals 4 – Rangers 3 (2OT)
The Background: For the second consecutive post-season the Caps found themselves as the number one seed in the East as the playoffs began. For the second time in three post-seasons the Caps would face the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. This was not new territory for them, and the expectation was that the experience would provide the Caps with enough of a push to make quick work of the Rangers. It would be quite a change for the Caps in the Bruce Boudreau era, since all four playoff series played under Boudreau over the previous three years went to seven games. In this game, the Caps had a chance to put the Rangers in a deep hole, to go up three games to one after dropping Game 3 at Madison Square Garden.
Why It Mattered: Over the course of the season, the Caps played several other games that mattered, each carrying their own takeaway. A couple of those games would have that “takeaway” manifest itself in this game as a lesson to be applied. The resiliency they showed in the February 16th game against Anaheim would be called upon in this one. The Caps lost a tough one in Game 3 in Madison Square Garden when Brandon Dubinsky broke a 2-2 tie with 99 seconds left. It would help if they could draw on some reservoir of resiliency to reclaim their advantage in this series.
After the Caps and Rangers fought to a scoreless first period, it looked as if perhaps the Caps had done just that. Taking the crowd out of a game when playing on the road sucks the air out of a building, and holding the Rangers to six shots in the first period had that effect. But the Caps had a couple of power play opportunities slip through their fingers, too. Those opportunities lost would come back to bite them in the second. Less than a minute after killing off a tripping penalty to Mike Green, the Caps gave up the game’s first goal on the Rangers’ second shot of the period, a freakish goal by Artem Anisimov from below the goal line that he banked off the leg of Caps forward Matt Hendricks.
The Rangers were not done. When Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky scored seven seconds apart in the period’s 14th minute, the crowd was back into it, and the Rangers looked to tie the series if not take outright control of it. Since Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist had not allowed four goals in a game at MSG since January and had done so only once since early November, a comeback did not look likely for the Caps. It looked even worse when Alexander Semin took a boarding call in the last minute of the second period that put the Caps a man short and reflected a certain frustration with the way the game was going.
However, just 2:47 into the third period and barely 90 seconds after his penalty expired, Semin intercepted a clearing pass by Ryan McDonagh, skated in, and wristed a shot at Lundqvist. The Ranger goalie made the initial save but did not control the puck lying just off the left post. Semin continued in, and with Lundqvist lying on his side trying to sweep his glove over the puck, Semin poked the puck the last six inches to put the Caps on the board.
Less than a minute later Marcus Johansson sent the puck from just inside the Ranger blue line at the right point across to Brooks Laich skating down the left side. Laich did not cleanly control the puck, but he managed to retrieve it along the left wing boards. From there, Laich spun and sent the puck to the net where Johansson was waiting. The rookie forward tipped a backhand behind Lundqvist to draw the Caps to within one at 3:44.
If the crowd was making noise now, it wasn’t the roar born of the home team’s momentum, but the nervous murmuring reflecting a change in the game’s momentum to the visiting team. The nervousness was only amplified when Johansson brought the Caps even, defecting a drive by John Carlson past Lundqvist at 12:07. Having endured the “hockey as spectacle” of the Winter Classic and the trials of an eight-game losing streak gave the Caps some experience to draw from in battling adversity and dealing with big game situations. Having used that experience to draw even, it helped them hold off the Rangers over the rest of the third period and a first overtime.
The rule in overtime games is that as time passes, it is likely to be a mistake that influences the ending. Couple fatigue with deteriorating ice, and mistakes aren’t uncommon. Add in that Madison Square Garden has notoriously poor ice, and the likelihood is increased that much more. That made it a bit odd that this game should pass 90 minutes in game time, but that was the case in this one. The mistake did come though.
In the 13th minute of the second overtime, Marcus Johansson crossed the Ranger blue line and left the puck for Jason Chimera crossing behind him. Chimera wrong-footed a harmless wrist shot at Lundqvist, who fended off the shot but did not control it. Marian Gaborik, coming down the middle to defend, tried to poke the puck into the corner just as Lundqvist was going down to cover it. Gaborik got a stick on it, but the puck was jittery on the failing ice, and the it popped behind Lundqvist. Chimera, following up his own shot and camped at the side of the net, was now faced with an open net and 12 inches of ice to negotiate with the puck on his stick. Chimera could not and did not miss from there, bunting the puck those last 12 inches and sealing the 4-3 overtime win and giving the Caps a 3-1 lead in the series.
The Takeaway: The Rangers allowed the Caps a grand total of one goal in the last three games of the regular season and overwhelmed them in 7-0 and 6-0 wins. When the Rangers scored three goals in the second period, two of them within seven seconds of one another, it started to look like one of those Ranger beatdowns. But the Caps had played well on a big stage this season, such as the New Year’s Day game in Pittsburgh. And coming back from a deficit was not unheard of, especially when they did it four times against Anaheim in February.
Their experience did not make the Game 4 outcome likely, but it didn’t mean the Caps should be given up for dead, either. And when they did come back, it made the Game 5 series-clinching win almost anti-climactic. In that sense this game, coming as it did under the circumstances and with faint echoes of previous games that mattered this season, was the high point of the Caps’ season. And that is why this game itself mattered in the 2010-2011 season.
(photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)