This time there wouldn't be a slow start or an opportunity for an opponent to bring itself back to life. With a chance Saturday to clinch a first-round series victory against the New York Rangers and erase memories of last year's disappointing exit, the Washington Capitals took control of their future.
The Capitals set a decisive tone in the first 10 minutes of Game 5 at Verizon Center that New York could never match, finding their killer instinct to capture a 3-1 win and seal a four-games-to-one victory in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
It's the first time Washington has won a series in under seven games since 1997-98, when it defeated the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference semifinals en route to the franchise's only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"Last year we had a lead, 3-1 [against Montreal], and we thought it was over and we was a little bit relaxed," said Alex Ovechkin, who scored the game-winner and had perhaps his strongest performance of the postseason thus far. "Now everybody focused and everybody don't have any relaxes. We're learning, and again we make one step and tomorrow's a new day, a new series."
Rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth made 26 saves in another unflappable outing and finished the series having stopped all but eight of 148 shots he faced in five games for a .946 save percentage and 1.38 goals-against average — both statistics lead the NHL.
Neuvirth received plenty of support from his Washington teammates as well, who picked up where they left off after Game 4's emotional comeback and didn't give the Rangers a chance to play from an advantageous position. New York's lone goal in the concluding contest, by Wojtek Wolski, came as an irrelevant gasp with 31.5 seconds remaining in regulation. That goal followed a stretch of 118minutes, 17 seconds, dating to Game 4, that the Capitals, and Neuvirth, held the Rangers scoreless.
"We had a huge start, but we didn't have a pregame skate, so I felt a little rusty," said Neuvirth, whose teams have never lost in the 15 career playoff series he has started in. "But the guys did awesome job; [I] took a lot of shots from the outside. All series long I was making the effort, and it's an unbelievable feeling right now."
Last spring, a slow start was Washington's undoing when it failed to put away its series against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5, but this time the Capitals would not make the same error. Washington showed plenty of spunk and energy from the opening faceoff and quickly parlayed it into much time in the offensive zone.
A plethora of shots greeted Henrik Lundqvist, who managed to hold off the barrage but only until Washington was given its first power play of the game with Bryan McCabe headed off for tripping Alexander Semin. Lundqvist (24 saves) made an initial stop on a point shot by Mike Green, but when a mess of bodies converged on the net, no one could prevent the Capitals' defenseman from poking the loose puck home just under six minutes in.
"We wanted to attack. We didn't want to sit back and let any opportunity go to waste or let them feel good about themselves," said Brooks Laich, who recorded two assists." We wanted to put them on their heels and try and give them a reason to quit. We knew they weren't gonna, but we were going to try to make it tough on them."
Washington continued to control the play for the duration of the first but would suffer one potentially significant loss. With 6:11 remaining in the frame, Green, who missed 26 of 28 games at the end of the regular season with a pair of concussions, was hit on the left side of the head by a slap shot from New York's Matt Gilroy. Fragments of Green's helmet scattered on the ice but the defenseman went off the ice under his own power. He returned to the bench but didn't play another shift in the game.
The five-defenseman rotation didn't seem to hamper the Capitals, though, and Ovechkin made sure to take some pressure off the team by adding to the lead. After a Rangers turnover, Scott Hannan made a breakout pass to Ovechkin, who streaked up the right wing and powered his way past Marc Staal for a backhander that completed the stunning play.
"Today was his best game, easily," coach Bruce Boudreau said of Ovechkin. "And I mean complete. The other games he's had flashes of brilliance and then he's been not so visible. Today, I thought he was very visible. He was on the ice doing the right things, and I thought his goal was spectacular."
Ovechkin's third goal of the playoffs put Washington up 2-0 just 7:04 into the second, giving the home team an opportunity to stifle a Rangers squad that was forced to take excessive risk to keep its season alive.