NEW YORK -- If the Washington Capitals are going to win one of the first two games at Madison Square Garden in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the New York Rangers, they'll have to do it in Game 2 tomorrow, because there were no surprises for the Rangers last night.
New York made the Caps pay for every mistake, and came away with a convincing, 6-3 victory for a one-game lead in the best-of-seven series.
"Our offensive production was opportunistic," Rangers coach Mike Keenan said. "We seemed to be able to find the offense when we needed it, and we're going to have to continue to capitalize when we have those opportunities."
Washington's game plan was to keep Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov bottled up and to have no fear of Mark Messier.
The Caps kept Messier secured until the closing minutes and gave up just one goal to Leetch and two assists to Zubov.
But with New York emulating the Caps' formula for teamwork, two goals from Brian Noonan and one each from Stephane Matteau and Greg Gilbert made the difference.
Leetch's goal, though, coming with 12:47 gone in the second period to break a 2-2 tie, probably did the most damage.
Don Beaupre started in goal for Washington and made 18 saves. Beaupre played well, giving up only one truly bad goal, while being screened or hung out on his own on several others.
"We made defensive zone coverage mistakes," Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld said. "Any mistake we made, they made us pay. We were out-hustled and out-muscled, and that's simply a matter of determination. We're going to be a whole lot more determined in Game 2."
Washington was playing without defenseman Calle Johansson, who is out indefinitely with a traumatized nerve in his left leg, and that appeared to take a toll on the Caps' defense.
During the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against Pittsburgh, the Caps, at times, coped well with the loss of Sylvain Cote, Dale Hunter and Kevin Hatcher.
But last night, with Johansson sidelined, a greater burden fell on Hatcher.
Hatcher said he missed Johansson, his line mate for several seasons.
"You don't recognize what he does when he's on the ice," Hatcher said. "He's very solid at both ends. He's not offensive, but he's a big part of our defensive corps. I've been playing with him so long, and we know each other so well, we don't have to think."
But Johansson wasn't there last night, and when Noonan "slipped away" from Hatcher in the corner ("I couldn't get any help," Hatcher said of the situation), Noonan scored his second goal, the game-winner.
"We can't get negative about this loss," Hatcher said. "We have to tighten up in our end. Too many times we didn't win the one-on-one battles, and that's why they won.
"But we played 40 minutes. We were in the game for most of it. I had a missed assignment, and Noonan slipped away on another, but with the team we have, the way we played we have no reason to think we can't come back and win if we cut out the mistakes."
The Caps did show a resilience that the Rangers did not see from the New York Islanders in their four-game sweep in the first round.
After the Rangers went up 1-0 on a goal by Matteau, 3:51 into the first period, the Caps tied it 22 seconds later on a breakaway goal by Michal Pivonka, who was the first to benefit from an
assist from Cote, who assisted on Washington's other goals, by Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley, as well.
"Washington proved we're not as sharp as we could be," the Rangers' Glenn Anderson said. "We have got to stay on our toes, because they proved that they are going to keep coming back. They're fighting. They're digging. They want to win as bad as anybody does, and it's going to be a tough, long series."
Washington had chances to come back in the second period, but the Caps were just off by inches, and when they weren't, Rangers goalie Mike Richter (27 saves) was on.
"Richter made some good saves," Caps center Joe Juneau said. "But we didn't bear down enough to put it in.
"We felt pretty good in here [the locker room] after the game. We felt even though only half of our team was going good, we were still in it. If we had gotten that third goal first, it could have been a big difference."