Seldom are overtime triumphs in the NHL postseason secured with slick, tick-tack-toe playmaking and virtuoso conversion. Most often, it’s a turnover in a lethal part of the ice, a bizarre deflection off a skate, maybe a bad line change leading to an odd man break that ushers in fast-forming mob scenes of euphoria in one section of ice and collective, stunned agony in another. As a viewer of the televised proceedings at home you can blink and miss the mistake that, seized upon suddenly, catapults a team to triumph.
Sudden death overtime playoff hockey — truly there is nothing else quite like it in all of sports.
The New York Rangers Wednesday night, backstopped by a game-stealing performance from Henrik Lunqvist, skated just the type of game head coach John Tortorella likely hoped they would. They survived an opening-frame surge from the hosts, watched luck guide some Capitals’ shots into the iron behind Lundqvist, again successfully stymied Alexander Ovechkin by matching their minutes-gobbling Girardi-Staal defensive pair against Ovi (more than 65 minutes of ice between the Rags’ top pair defenders), and were poised to deliver a deflating defeat to a delicate Capitals’ psyche. They had the Caps just where they wanted ‘em. And 18,000 in red in the building knew it, too.
A first-frame of overtime appeared poised to head into a second. The puck was on the trustworthy blade of Marc Staal. He just had to lift a clearing pass up past 6-foot-5 Jason Arnott, stationed hard on the nearside boards at the blueline, defending against the hard-around. He didn’t.
Jason Arnott — he the veteran of 106 postseason games — grasped error and in an instant authored victory with it. He had a game-deciding moment in his glove there at the Rangers blueline. You could just tell, somehow, that Arnott would make a play — the play — in that moment. It’s who he quickly has become for this hockey club. Way up high above the proceedings I was part of a new media contingent seizing one another’s shirt sleeves for emphasis as Arnott corralled Staal’s suicide outlet and instantly recognized Semin’s sniper stationing. The big pivot quickly directed a centering pass to the unchecked Semin, some 20 feet in front of Lundqvist, and good Sasha turned and rifled a laser-blazer past the standout netminder.
Oh but ain’t it grand that Sasha’s signed for next season! 18,000 of the Red Army unanimously thought in their screams and hugs at that moment, looking down as the Russian winger became engulfed in the jubilant embrace of his teammates.
And ain’t it grand that Lou Lamoriello accepted that trade deadline day phone call from George McPhee — and that Arnott agreed to waive his no-trade clause to come to D.C.?
I’m naming my next dog Lou Lamoriello. Really: Where would this team be this postseason were it still competing with second line center by committee?
And what a difference a year makes. Almost a year to the day that the Montreal Canadiens came into Verizon Center as prohibitive underdogs for game 1 against the President’s Trophy winners, with a goalie named Halak standing on his head, forcing a tight game into overtime, and winning it thanks to Tomas Plekanec, the Caps and 18,000 clad in red Wednesday instead left Chinatown breathing an oh so elusive sigh of relief in spring.
We in Washington live to have our dreams not vanquished another day. More than perhaps we care to admit it, we needed that W last night. The Capitals may or may not be delicate of psyche this spring; they’ll certainly allege they’re not. We the spring-scarred on the other hand most assuredly are.
And through 53 minutes of action Wednesday, the Capitals gave the Verizon faithful every reason to suspect the onset of additional dread. They were scoreless, the Rags had a marker early in the final frame, and Lunqvist had the look of invincible.
So Bruce Boudreau went last resort — shifting Semin away from Arnott and placing him alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin. The Uber line struck on its first shift together. That it was a “dirty” goal was its innate beauty. Undone by a perimeter attack against the Habs last April, these revamped Caps got it done with the clock running down with their pretty boys going ugly.
Arnott and Semin were primary heroes last night, but add Michal Neuvirth — competing in his first-ever NHL postseason game — a poised Marcus Johansson, and most especially a no-rust-on-his-game Mike Green (26:30 of ice) to the list of do-gooders in this big game. Michal Neuvirth couldn’t have had a better introduction to the Stanley Cup playoffs than he did last night. He stopped 24 of 25 shots, many in key situations down the stretch. He fell on pucks and stopped play at all the right times. He looked very much like the right guy to get the call. He’s never, ever lost a playoff series in his professional hockey career.
It was a big game. The winners of game 1s in the Stanley Cup playoffs go on to win series nearly 70 percent of the time. That’s a telling stat, but trumping it last night in importance was the pervasive sense in this town that we just couldn’t watch another hot goalie for another underdog team lead his guys to a tone-setting upset at the start of a playoff’s opening round. Not in this postseason of referendum.
Saddle up, ye of springtime scars and grey-hair-from-overtime and just-below-the-surface doubts. Wednesday night strongly suggested that we’re in for another war on our nerves this April. Jason Arnott can’t shorten the journey of hard work and good luck required of a prosperous postseason, but it sure looks like he can lead it.