By Jay Greenberg, Special to CBC Sports
Not to accuse Marc Staal of having cold feet, but he doesn't seem too anxious to put a toe in the water.
"If it's Game 10 [of the regular season] of something maybe I jump out there for a few shifts and see how it goes," said the Ranger defenceman. "As soon as I'm not second-guessing myself or things become automatic again is when I can jump into a playoff-type game."
The Rangers' best defenceman says his vision is close, if not exactly where it was before his right eye was hit by a deflected puck against on March 5. This may be another way of saying Staal can read the No. 8 on a Washington jersey as clearly as he can the top line on the eye chart.
The way Alex Ovechkin roared through the shortened 2013 season, playing against him would not be Staal's, or anyone's, definition of easing into a few shifts in Game 10.
In Game 1 Thursday night of the fourth Rangers-Caps series in five years, the Rangers slept through the first 10 minutes, failed to cash a 53-second period five-on-three, took too many penalties against a 25 per cent Washington power play and went to sleep during a 46-second span of the middle period, when the Capitals scored twice.
All good reasons for the Rangers, 3-1 losers, to remind themselves they can take it up a level in Game 2, successfully stay the same course as a year ago against the Caps ,and squeak it out in the end again by one goal in Game 7. But that was against a different Ovie, who basically was turned into a third-line grinder by then-Washington coach Dale Hunter.
With the firing of Bruce Boudreau, Hunter was brought in to be the tough sheriff. Ovechkin played like he had been jailed, never complaining, but never showing the joie de vivre that makes him one of the players in an over-coached NHL that never should be chained.
The least of Ovechkin's Game 1 contribution may have been his conversion of a Mike Green power-play drive off the backboard that tied the game in the second period. The rest of his 19 minutes 33 seconds of ice time was spent tipping a feed past Ryan McDonagh for a first-period breakaway - Ovechkin was stoned by the left pad of a splitting Henrik Lundqvist - forcing a first holding penalty by McDonagh while the Rangers were struggling to get untracked, rocking Dan Girardi with a body check, and diving back on a third-period Ranger two-on-one.
On a mission
Hunter has returned to London, Ont., to run the Ontario Hockey League's Knights, Buying into new coach Adam Oates's request to try the right side, throwing his body around when he doesn't have the puck, Ovechkin has proven he can play responsibly, and after leading the league in goal-scoring after a lost start, has that look that this is his spring, finally.
Benefitted on a lethal power play by a healthy Green, playing for a coach who wants to fire the most dynamic weapon in the game, it appears Ovechkin is having too much fun playing to lose early again the playoffs.
Just a hunch, but the Caps, presumed buried by a 2-8-1 start, perhaps will be more comfortable than ever leaping out of the weeds in this, Ovechkin's sixth post-season.
"The pressure is always there, it doesn't matter if I'm bad or I'm good," Ovechkin said late this season. "Critics [are] always going to be on one side and critics on the other side. Basically, there are many critics.
"I'm grown man. I'm not like anymore 20-year-old guy who listen to everybody and what fan says every day -- to take all the pressure from me. I'm growing up."
As he grows up, the Caps, starting the same goalie in Game 1 of the playoffs in two consecutive years since Olaf Kolzig in 1998 and 1999, should be ready to grow up, too. Among Braden Holtby's big stops was on a breakaway by Carl Hagelin, the Rangers best player in Game 1.
For a period, it looked like that would be Lundqvist, but Marcus Johansson, sprung by a brilliant pass by Steve Oleksy that split McDonagh and Girardi for a breakaway, basically shot the tiebreaking goal right through the Ranger goalie, Just 46 seconds later, he was surprised by a turnaround drive by Jason Chimera from the sideboards.
"It was just a bad, bad goal," said Lundqvist." I thought I had my pad there, but for some reason it went underneath. I probably expected a pass and was slow to react.
"Doesn't matter. I have to stop that."
If Staal has medical clearance, he has to stop thinking he can pick his spot to return. One of the best shut-down defencemen in the game has no choice but to get up to speed quickly, because Ovechkin is in a hurry to make up for lost springs.
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