WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin rebounded from a rare zero-shot performance by scoring after 88 seconds Wednesday night, Braden Holtby made 30 saves, and the Washington Capitals recovered from a potentially devastating loss by beating the top-seeded New York Rangers 2-1 to force a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
Two nights after blowing a lead in the last 10 seconds of regulation and losing in overtime, the No. 7-seeded Capitals showed immediately they were over it. Ovechkin’s early power-play goal and Jason Chimera’s second-period score were just enough for the unflappable playoff rookie Holtby.
The teams meet in New York on Saturday night to determine who will face the New Jersey Devils in the conference finals.
With his mom covering her eyes in the stands, Holtby made only one error, and it came with 50.5 seconds left — a goal that was credited to Marian Gaborik and deflected off a skate and someone in a scrum in the crease. Forgive any Capitals fans for thinking, “Uh, oh. Here we go again.” But Washington held on this time.
Ovechkin’s reduced role became a major talking point throughout these playoffs: Usually a 20-minute-a-game guy, he played as few as 13 1/2 minutes in Game 2 against New York. He also came up quiet in Game 5 on Monday night, with no shots on goal, only the second time in 49 career playoff games that had happened to the man they call Alex the Great.
That 3-2 victory for the Rangers was the sort of setback that can be tough to set aside. New York scored one power-play goal to tie it with 7.6 seconds left in the third period, and another to win it about 1 1/2 minutes into overtime.
The Capitals, though, staved off elimination and are proving to be quite adept at bouncing back. They’re 4-0 in games immediately after overtime losses in these playoffs; they haven’t lost consecutive games since March 22-23; and Holtby is 6-0 after any defeat this post-season, his first in the NHL.
Before Wednesday’s game, Ovechkin told reporters: “We just can’t go home right now.”
He helped make sure they didn’t yet.
Fewer than 1 1/2 minutes after the opening faceoff, the two-time NHL MVP dropped to a knee as he powered a slap shot just inside the right post from about 30 feet in front of goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
It was Ovechkin’s 30th career playoff goal, tying the franchise record held by Peter Bondra, and came 15 seconds after Rangers defenceman Anton Stralman was sent to the penalty box for tripping Chimera.
Another miscue followed: Defenceman Ryan McDonagh wasted a chance to clear the puck, instead sending it along the boards right to a Capitals player. That giveaway led to a series of crisp passes by the Capitals — Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green were credited with assists — and an animated earful for McDonagh from Rangers coach John Tortorella.
That early edge proved to be a good omen for the Capitals, who are 7-1 this post-season when scoring first — and 0-5 when their opponent scores first. In this series, all six games were won by whichever team led 1-0.
Later in the first period, Ovechkin nearly scored one of his YouTube-ready, “How did he do that?” goals, somehow managing to lift the puck past Lundqvist while belly-flopping onto the ice. But the puck hit the crossbar. Then, at the opposite end of the rink, Ovechkin used his back to block a shot by McDonagh, preventing the puck from even approaching Holtby — the sort of thing the Russian wing is not known for, but his teammates have turned into an art form this post-season.
Entering Wednesday, the Capitals ranked No. 1 in blocked shots — the Rangers were No. 2 — and also led in takeaways during these playoffs.
Washington still can score, too, even if its offence is far less imposing than it once was, and the host took a 2-0 lead with 9:01 left in the second period on Chimera’s chip-in goal. Defenceman John Carlson took a shot from the right circle that deflected off the tip of Backstrom’s skate and slid across the crease, right to Chimera’s stick.
It was the second two-goal lead Washington had held all series, its first since the opening period of Game 2.
A little more than a minute later, though, the Rangers got a good chance to change the tenor of Game 6, when Capitals forward Jeff Halpern — playing for the first time in more than six weeks — was called for high-sticking John Mitchell, a 4-minute double minor.
That was the same penalty called on Washington’s Joel Ward in the final 30 seconds of regulation in Game 5, while the Capitals nursed a 2-1 lead. And, well, we know how that turned out.
This time, though, the Capitals’ penalty killers were up to the task, allowing the Rangers only three shots and no goals. When Halpern skated out of the box, the lead intact, the red-clad Capitals fans gave their team a standing ovation.
NOTES: The NHL announced Wednesday that Game 7 will start at 7:30 p.m. EDT. … The Rangers haven’t reached the conference finals since 1997; the Capitals haven’t since 1998. … Capitals F Jay Beagle was scratched because of what the team said was a lower-body injury — even though coach Dale Hunter repeatedly told reporters earlier in the day that Beagle would play. Taking his spot in the lineup was Halpern, who hadn’t played since getting 4 1/2 minutes of ice time on March 23. … The Capitals have won seven of their past eight home games against the Rangers. Washington eliminated New York in 2009 and last season.