By Dion Johnson
Special to the AFRO
The Washington Capitals will now face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the NHL playoffs. (Courtesy Photo/Washington Capitals)
(April 29, 2009) – Sergei Federov, Simeon Varlamov, Matt Bradley and Tom Poti.
These are names most casual NHL observers wouldn’t recognize. But without the extraordinary effort by those players, the Washington Capitals would not have been able to become only the 21st team in NHL History to come back from a 3-1 series deficit and pull off the seven game Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers, winning, 4-3, in their first playoff series victory since 1998.
New York won the first two games in Verizon Center on the strength of the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist, while Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau made quite possibly the biggest decision in his two seasons as coach, benching the incumbent starter Jose Theodore, who was awful in game one. Theodore was benched in favor of rookie Novice Simeon Varlamov for game two.
Even though the Rangers won the second game, the rookie was outstanding in defense and would go on to only give up seven goals in six games to lead the whole NHL in goals against average for the first round of playoffs.
Washington fought back and easily won game three in Madison Square Garden, 4-0, as Varlamov held the Rangers to a shutout. Behind two goals from Alexander Semin, and a goal a piece by Brooks Laich and Tom Poti, the Capitals outplayed the Rangers from start to finish and momentum seemed to swing back in Washington’s favor.
But in game four, Lundqvist again was outstanding with a career high 38 saves in a 2-1 win for the Rangers and all Capitals hope seemed to be lost.
Game five back on home ice turned into the Matt Bradley show early in the game with two goals in the first period and that sequence seemed to deflate the Rangers for good as the Capitals won in front of a raucous Verizon Center crowd, 4-0. Besides the fact that Varlamov recorded his second shutout in three games, Rangers Coach John Tortorella’s altercation with fans on the opposing bench which lead to a one game suspension made this game one of the most memorable in Capitals History.
Game six was back at Madison Square Garden but that didn’t matter to the suddenly hot Capitals, who seemed to have figured out Lundqvist, who was benched in the third period for the second consecutive game. Goals by defensemen Milan Jurcina, Mike Green and Tom Poti, plus another highlight worthy goal by Victor Kozlov, made it a 5-1 game by the end of the 2nd period. The final two goals by the Rangers were virtually meaningless.
Game seven didn’t start off well for the Capitals, as the Rangers played their best overall game in the series holding Washington without one shot on goal for the first 11 minutes of the game and jumping out to a one goal lead. Although back on familiar ice, the Capitals seemed to be a little tentative early but as the game progressed, they regained their confident swagger, especially after a goal by Semin to tie the game up late in the first period.
The Rangers played great “keep-a-way” defense for the whole second period, giving the Capitals very little chances to score and it took all the way until the five minute mark in the final period where former league MVP Sergei Federov scored one of the most memorable goals in team history to complete the comeback and give the Capitals and its fans a huge 2-1 victory.
As the celebration started on the ice and on the streets of Chinatown, D.C., word had started to spread that the next opponent for the Capitals will be Sydney Crosby, and the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. This is the dream matchup everyone from the fans to the commissioner’s office has been waiting for. Game one will be at the Verizon Center on Saturday at 1 p.m. and will be shown on national TV on NBC.