“That’s just the way we are. We’re a cool team in here, we don’t really crack.” Jason Chimera.
The last few seasons, the Washington Capitals have entered post-season play as a high seed, if not a downright favorite at times to win hockey’s Holy Grail. President’s Trophies, Southeast Division Champion banners, you name it; the Caps have been sitting ducks waiting for a lower seed to come in without any type of pressure and just play hockey. We know how that has turned out.
But now, there is no more pressure on the Washington Capitals.
With a resilient 2-1 Game 6 victory over the suddenly frustrated New York Rangers, the Caps have reversed any type of pressure that might have accumulated this series and turned it squarely on the No. 1 seed that now has to defend their own ice in Game 7.
As they have this entire playoffs, the Capitals responded positively after losing an overtime game in the previous contest. In fact, the Caps are 4-0 in such games this post-season. It might seem strange to praise the Washington Capitals for their poise in elimination games, but the facts are undeniable — the Caps are playing with a poise and resiliency previously unseen from this group of players.
Perhaps nowhere is that more noticeable than between the pipes, as the Caps 22-year old netminder exudes a confidence that seems to radiate from his goal crease. Braden Holtby, maybe a bit shaky early, nonetheless turned in another impressive display, holding the Rangers scoreless until a twice redirected puck got past him at 19:09 of the third period with the Rangers playing 6-on-5.
“It’s a big one,” Holtby said of the victory. “I think we earned it in a way that is going to benefit us in the long run. We played a very solid team game. Very gutsy effort and we got rewarded tonight.”
As the game went on, the Rangers grew noticeably more frustrated, including goading Brandon Prust into a silly roughing penalty with three minutes left in the second period. So, are the Caps finally getting into the Rangers heads?
“I hope so,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. ‘We’re definitely trying to. We said, just stand in there, you don’t have to do anything, say anything. Boston we got away with more [extracurriculars], this series is being called a lot tighter. If you’re gonna get a shot in, get the first one in and don’t retaliate. It was nice to see we got rewarded for chirping smart.”
“That’s our goal,” Matt Hendricks said, almost defiantly. “We want to frustrate ‘em. We don’t want to make things easy on them at all.”
“As each game goes on it gets more and more chippy out there, like any series I think,” Joel Ward said. “You can tell the intensity picks up a little more. When you’re playing a game where you can close out and you down early, things can happen, maybe you get a little frustrated at times. But for us Saturday [Game 7] is going to be a different mentality and a different game and it’s going to be a different atmosphere. We just gotta worry about ourselves and not about what they’re doing.”
The Caps set the tone early with some great physical shifts, notably from the Troy Brouwer-Matt Hendricks-Jeff Halpern line. Brouwer was a one-man wrecking crew on his first shift, notching two hits and forechecking very strong. That energy paid off 73 seconds into the game, when Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman was sent off for tripping Jason Chimera on a rush.
The Caps made it hurt too, as Alex Ovechkin unleashed a missile from the high slot on the power play past Henrik Lundqvist, giving the Caps a lead they would never relinquish. The Caps were 7-1 entering play when scoring first. Make that eight now.
Ovechkin spoke of the importance of a quick start. “You can see how we start the hockey game. We get the puck deep, finish our checks and move our legs. [We] got a penalty and scored a goal.”
They picked up another at 10:59 of the second period, as Alexander Semin did the dirty work, freeing a puck along the boards and getting it into space, where Mike Green could settle it and direct it toward the net. Nicklas Backstrom redirected the puck to Chimera on the far post, who only had to tap it in from three feet for the ultimate margin of victory.
But a little over a minute later, Jeff Halpern — inserted into the lineup for the ailing Jay Beagle — got tangled up along the boards, catching John Mitchell up high and opening a cut on Mitchell’s face, setting up a four-minute double-minor. But the Caps were equal to the task on the penalty kill, as they have been almost the entire series.
”It’s one of those accidental things again,” coach Dale Hunter explained. “It starts with your goalie – [Braden Holtby] was sound and penalty killers sacrificed, blocked shots, worked their tails off and got the job done.” Hunter might have understated the performance, but the penalty kill was a huge momentum boost for the Caps. Having just taken a 2-0 lead, allowing a goal could have crushed much of the good effort the Caps did early.
Rangers coach John Tortorella was succinct in his assessment of his team’s power play. “It sucked.”
So it’s back to the Garden for Game 7. Win and advance. Lose and clean out your locker. This season has not gone the way anyone thought or planned, and some might think it a victory to have reached this spot as it is. But the Caps have nothing but opportunity ahead of them, while the Rangers now have all the pressure of defending the higher seed and home ice. The shoe is on the other foot.
“It’s Game 7 now, so all the frustration kinda goes out the window,” Chimera said at the end of his interview with a mischevious grin on his face. “It’s just one game for all the marbles. It’s gonna be fun.”
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.