WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals managed to accomplish a frustrating hat trick of iron, hitting the post or crossbar three times. They also failed to finish off two clean breakaways.
But Alex Ovechkin found a way to score, tying the game late in regulation during an intense poke-at-the-puck scramble. Then Alexander Semin broke his playoff drought 18:24 into overtime to give the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a 2-1 win over the eighth-seeded New York Rangers in Game 1 of their first-round series on Wednesday night.
The winning goal came when Jason Arnott intercepted a clearing pass from Marc Staal, then found Semin between the circles for a one-timer past Henrik Lundqvist.
Semin had gone 14 playoff games without a goal, his last one coming against the Rangers in a first-round series two years ago.
New York defenseman Matt Gilroy broke a scoreless tie with a one-timer 1:56 into the third period, and Ovechkin tied it with 6:16 left in regulation.
Michal Neuvirth made 24 saves to win his NHL playoff debut. Lundqvist stopped 31 shots and was helped by the posts behind him that absorbed three drives.
Game 2 is Friday night in Washington.
The Capitals were upset a year ago by the Montreal Canadiens in a 1-vs.-8 series — the latest in an annual string of playoff debacles — but this year they have vowed things will be different. Washington began playing a more defensive scheme after a 7-0 loss to the Rangers in December, and it showed as the Capitals generally controlled the flow of play.
But Washington kept missing its offensive chances. Semin hit the crossbar with 5 minutes to go in the first period. It was only 19 seconds later when Arnott fired a shot off iron.
A sequence in the second period symbolized the Capitals' frustration as well as any. On an odd-man rush, Ovechkin made a superb cross-ice pass to Mike Knuble, whose shot from the right circle hit the post. The rebound bounced out to Nicklas Backstrom, who whiffed with an open net in front of him because Rangers forward Vinny Prospal had tipped the puck just enough for it to hop over Backstrom's stick.
Semin also had a coast-to-coast move that ended in futility when he stuffed the puck into Lundqvist. Backstrom also had a breakaway that ended when he slid the puck into Lundqvist's leg.
With the Capitals desperate for the tying goal, Semin carried the puck toward the net and started a wild sequence of poking and prodding. Ovechkin, Semin, Staal, Derek Stepan and Lundqvist all tried to get a stick, a skate — anything — on the puck. Finally, one of Ovechkin's stabs managed to move the puck between the post and Lundqvist's right skate, a score so subtle it took a second or two realize it had taken place. It wasn't until it was verified by video review that Ovechkin could comfortably celebrate his 21st playoff goal.
Ovechkin nearly made a vital mistake late in regulation when he sent Brandon Prust tumbling and was called for roughing with 4:43 to play, but the Capitals killed off the penalty to send the game to overtime.
The game's first goal was the result of hustle and teamwork. Prust beat John Erskine down the ice to get to the puck behind the net and slid it to Wojtek Wolski, who fed Gilroy for the one-timer from the right circle for his first career playoff goal.
A sold-out Verizon Center bathed in red started getting anxious as the usual feeling-out moments common in the first period of a hockey game lasted well into the third. By contrast, the overtime was free-flowing and exciting, as if two new sets of teams had emerged from the locker rooms.
NOTES: Capitals D Mike Green played for the first time since he was elbowed by Stepan on Feb. 25. Green missed the final 20 regular-season games with a concussion. ... Scratches for the Rangers included LW Sean Avery, who led the team in penalty minutes during the regular season with 174. New York's second-leading scorer, Ryan Callahan, will miss the series because of a broken right leg.