WASHINGTON (AP) — A year ago, the Washington Capitals played a defense-first brand of hockey under coach Dale Hunter.
Nearly all of their playoff games were decided by one goal.
Alex Ovechkin’s ice time dwindled.
And their postseason ended with a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers in the second round.
On Thursday night, the Capitals opened this year’s playoffs against — who else? — the Rangers, using first-time NHL head coach Adam Oates’ more free-flowing style and a re-energized Ovechkin to produce a 3-1 victory.
“We play more well-rounded now,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We have guys that can score goals and are allowed to go up there and do their thing. There’s really no reins on anybody. At the same time, they know what their defensive responsibilities are.”
Ovechkin’s franchise-record 31st career playoff goal got Washington started before less-heralded teammates Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera scored 46 seconds apart, while Braden Holtby made 35 saves to outplay New York’s Henrik Lundqvist.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Saturday in Washington. It’s the third consecutive season these two teams are facing each other in the playoffs and the fourth time in five years.
After starting 0 for 3 in extra-man situations Thursday and trailing — “We feel, like, a little bit maybe nervous,” Ovechkin explained — the Capitals got a big boost when their captain put the puck in the net on their fourth power play.
When Washington defenseman Mike Green sent the puck past the net nearly seven minutes into the second period, it ricocheted off the boards and right to a charging Ovechkin, who flipped the puck past Lundqvist to make it 1-1.
“Kind of a lucky bounce,” two-time league MVP Ovechkin acknowledged, “but I’ll take it.”
Carl Hagelin had put sixth-seeded New York ahead 1-0 in the first period — the only puck that made it past Holtby.
“We kind of hung him out to dry once or twice,” Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said about the second-year goalie, “and he helped us out with some huge stops.”
Washington is playing a livelier brand of hockey under Oates, a Hockey Hall of Fame forward who shifted Ovechkin from left wing to right wing and helped design the Capitals’ league-best power play. Oates also is not as apt to demand that his players sit back and protect a lead, the way his predecessor did.
And perhaps the Capitals’ aggressiveness helped accumulate all of those power plays Thursday.
The Rangers drew six minor penalties, matching their regular-season high.
“Against a power play like that, if you’re killing that much, eventually they’re going to capitalize,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. “They’ve got enough talent out there to do that, and we’ve just got to stay out of the box.”
Coach John Tortorella agreed, saying: “We can’t take that many penalties. … Hopefully we’ll discipline ourselves in the next game.”
Only 33 seconds after New York’s Arron Asham was whistled for an illegal check to the head, Ovechkin broke his tie with Peter Bondra for most postseason goals by a Washington player. Ovechkin slammed his shoulder into the glass to celebrate, and chants of “M-V-P!” cascaded from the red-clad fans in the stands.
Ovechkin put his name in that conversation by scoring 22 times in the last 21 games to collect his third Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy — first since 2009 — and propel Washington to the Southeast Division title.
That goal energized the Capitals. So did wiping away a 5-on-3 chance the Rangers had for nearly a minute in the second period.
“Big kill,” Oates said.
Shortly after that power play ended, Capitals rookie defenseman Steve Oleksy — who got hit on his left jawline by a puck later in the second period — sent a pass about 80 feet down the middle of the ice and between Rangers defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh to set up Johansson.
“I didn’t know Steve had that club in his bag,” Washington forward Eric Fehr joked. “But he made a great pass, and JoJo made a good shot.”
Johansson collected the puck at the blue line and beat Lundqvist at the 14:21 mark to make it 2-1.
“We’ve got to know the guy’s behind us,” Girardi said. “That’s not really acceptable.”
It was Chimera’s turn less than a minute later, when he took a pass from Mathieu Perreault, spun around near the boards and put the hosts ahead 3-1. That led to mocking choruses of “Luuuundqvist” from spectators.
“Anytime you kill a 5-on-3, especially in playoffs, the momentum goes the other way, for sure,” said Chimera, who’s scored six of his eight career playoff goals against the Rangers. “If they get a goal, they’re feeling it. If we get a kill, obviously the crowd gets into it or we get into it. Everyone’s pumped up.”
Notes: The Rangers were 13-0-1 when leading after the first period during the regular season. … Capitals RW Joel Ward returned to action after missing the last nine regular-season games with a bruised left knee. … The Rangers were without injured LW Ryane Clowe, C Brian Boyle and D Marc Staal.
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