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Defense-first style serves Caps well in opener

by Corey Masisak
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Ever since Bruce Boudreau decided it was time for the Washington Capitals to play a more defensively responsible brand of hockey, one of the reasons for optimism he and the players have preached was it would better prepare them for the postseason.

Better defense -- and, as a byproduct, less free-wheeling offense -- would lead to low-scoring games and more educational opportunities to learn and play in those types of contests -- or at least that was the theory being subscribed to.

When the Washington Capitals defeated the New York Rangers 2-1 in overtime of Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, all of the times Boudreau and his players spoke of being better prepared suddenly looked incredibly prophetic.

“This is the game we’ve been preparing for,” defenseman Mike Green said. “We’ve done it a lot throughout the course of the year and I think it has given us some experience here. It paid off. We expect to be in these games in the rest of this series and as we move on, but it is not … you don’t want to be in this position, but we’re prepared for it.”

Added center Matt Hendricks: “Obviously, we went through the preparation for this. Everyone did their homework, and I thought we played a pretty solid game last night. They did too, though. They had a lot of energy going. They played real well. It showed what kind of a series this is going to be.”

If this was the first big test for the new-look Capitals, then consider it one passed. It wasn’t a perfect performance by any measure -- Washington missed opportunities to go ahead early and it wasn’t until desperation in the final minutes set in that the Capitals were able to solve Henrik Lundqvist -- but the work at the other end of the ice was sound.

Goaltender Michal Neuvirth made 24 saves in nearly 79 minutes in part because the Capitals were able to limit scoring chances for the Rangers. There were no breakaways and few odd-man rushes -- something that was a staple for Washington’s opponents in the not-so-distant past.

“I think when we played Florida the last two games [of the regular season] we got out of that. To get up against the Rangers and have everyone come together and stick to the game plan was great for us,” defenseman John Erskine said. “I think when everyone bought into it [earlier this season], we knew it was going to be good and that it would work.”

While it might be strange to see guys like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom skating backwards into a defensive position instead of pursuing the puck-carrier in front of them, the results have been hard to argue with and it shows that Boudreau has been able to get his best players to buy into the altered style of play.

The Capitals made the switch in December, but there were some growing pains along the way. One such night when it didn’t all work so smoothly was a 6-0 defeat to these Rangers in late February. After that, Washington’s defensive play became more consistent and the Capitals reeled off 16 wins in 19 games before a 1-0 defeat in the final game of the season against the Panthers after the top seed in the Eastern Conference had already been clinched.

Nine of those 19 games went to overtime or a shootout. Seventeen of the final 20 games after the loss to the Rangers (and the five games prior) were either one- or two-goal contests.

That is a lot of ice time in tight games in the third period for players to experience and grow from. It was that experience that paid off when the Capitals trailed the Rangers by a goal in the third period Wednesday night.

“We’re pretty comfortable playing in that situation,” forward Jason Chimera said. “When we got down one goal I think everyone knew we were going to get that tying goal. We’ve got the horses to score a goal in overtime.”

Added defenseman Karl Alzner: “It wasn’t hard at all to stay positive. We’ve got a team right now where we know we can win. We know we can come back. We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve had to battle back in the third period. It is just that confidence that if we do go down a goal, we have enough time. We only need a couple minutes and we can get one.”
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