Semin, Caps take important first step
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If you're going to go about the business of exorcising playoff demons, what better way to start than by getting a monster goal from the ghost himself?
Just when the Washington Capitals seemed determined to work from last season's playoff script, Alexander Semin rescued them by ripping a Jason Arnott pass past New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist at 18:24 of the first overtime to give the Caps a 2-1 victory in the opening game of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series.
Wildly gifted, maddeningly streaky, occasionally invisible, Semin had not scored a playoff goal since Game 7 of the Capitals' quarterfinals series against the Rangers in 2009. He did not score a goal in seven games against Pittsburgh in the next round that year. He did not score a goal in last spring's seven-game crash and burn against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
On Wednesday night, though, he scored perhaps the biggest goal of his career, a goal that reinforced the Caps' pre-series mantra that they are a different team and this spring will be different.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said he thought Semin showed he was into it from the start of Game 1. By the end of the night, he had scored the game winner and added an assist on the tying goal by Alex Ovechkin.
"I know he hadn't scored in the playoffs in a while," Boudreau said. "To come in and get a goal and an assist in a 2-1 game, that is a [sign] of how bad you want it. I thought it was fitting that he scored the overtime goal."
Washington veteran forward Mike Knuble put it more succinctly: "We're not going anywhere if he's not scoring. He's a humongous offensive threat."
What impressed Knuble more than the victory itself was how it was achieved.
Trailing late in the third period, the Capitals tied it on a goal that required a video review with Ovechkin and Semin crashing the net with five Rangers skaters and Lundqvist all within a few feet of the Capitals players.
"Those are our skilled guys in there, mucking in front of the net and jamming one in. Probably the last guys you'd think would be doing that," Knuble said. "It was great to see. The ones where they have to call upstairs and find out what actually happened are the best goals, I think."
The first game of a playoff series is like driving by a half-built house. You think you have an idea of what it might look like or how it will turn out, but it's really just guesswork. You never know when what you think is the living room will turn out to be a toilet.
What is indisputable is the demolition job the Capitals did over the last three games against Montreal last April. After leading the first-round series 3-1, they managed to score just three times in losing three straight to the plucky Canadiens. Leading up to Wednesday's opener against the Rangers, the story was about how this Capitals team had learned a lesson from a year ago, how they were built to prevail in those low-scoring games that had been their demise in the past.
But for much of Game 1 on Wednesday night, there were ominous signs that this was more deja vu than building a new foundation.
Semin and Arnott both hit crossbars within a minute of each other.
Lundqvist was sensational in turning aside 24 of 25 shots, at one point saving a sure goal on a Nicklas Backstrom breakaway with a deft flick of his right pad as the puck trickled through his legs.
The Capitals' power play, so flaccid in last year's series against Montreal, was shut out on two attempts in Game 1.
When Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy broke a scoreless draw less than two minutes into the third period after some nice forechecking work by Brandon Prust, the gauntlet was thrown down for the hometown Capitals. Was this talk of a new mindset just that, or was it something more?
"This is the game we've been preparing for. We've done it a lot throughout the course of the year, and I think it's given us some experience. It paid off tonight," said defenseman Mike Green, who was in the lineup for the first time since being sidelined with a concussion Feb. 25. "We expect to be in these games throughout the rest of the series and as we move on."
Not that the Caps were completely unflappable.
"We were a little flappable," Boudreau said. "We weren't getting anywhere, and it wasn't until the last 10 minutes where we said on the bench, 'OK, let's start sending the defensemen and taking more chances and going after them.'"
This was a terrific hockey game -- hard-hitting on both sides of the puck, terrific goaltending from Lundqvist and rookie Michal Neuvirth, who was playing in his first Stanley Cup playoff game. But there are no moral victories in the playoffs, and so the Rangers will be the ones who must dust themselves off and scramble to get even in Friday's Game 2.
"We played the game we wanted to for the most part," Rangers forward Brian Boyle said.
But even Lundqvist noted the subtle changes from the last time the two teams met in the postseason.
"This is probably what [the series] is going to look like. They are a different team; they play a little bit tighter now," Lundqvist said. "I think the key for us is to be patient and wait for our chances."
On Friday, the structure of what this series will become will continue to come into focus. So far, though, it is a building that shows no signs of being haunted, at least as far as the Capitals are concerned.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.