By Jay Greenberg in New York
The Washington Capitals, seeing the error of their ways after not seeing a conference final in the Alex Ovechkin era, can tighten the screws in their game until the wood starts to chip.
But if the fast coat of varnish that enabled Braden Holtby to outduel Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas by one goal last round is already fading in an even brighter light, it is going to be the same-old, same-old with another young Washington goalie.
Semyon Varlamov got the Capitals to the second round in 2009 and was one-and-done against an ordinary Montreal Canadiens team in 2010. Then it was Michal Neuvirth's turn to look unassailable against the Rangers a year ago only to be swept by Tampa Bay.
The Caps have changed coaches and changed styles. They can't change the perception of themselves as playoff chokers as long as every change they make in net continues to turn out to be to just another one-series wonder.
While that remains to be seen about the 22-year-old Holtby, we will begin to see as soon as Game 2 Monday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET). The Rangers got the jump on Washington, 3-1 Saturday afternoon in Game 1
because they were the more opportunistic team, which usually is another way of saying the winner got the stops and the loser did not.
Rangers forward Chris Kreider, who had a step on Washington defender Roman Hamrlik because Mike Green prematurely started to the bench on a line change, put a hard 30-footer along the ice past Holtby's left pad to put the Rangers ahead 2-1 in the third period. Good shot, but a better save could have kept the score tied.
"The release of the shot kind of fooled me," said Holtby. "Not really sure why."
Only 1:30 later, Holtby waited as centre Brad Richards came off the sideboards but Richards waited longer. Holtby, perhaps mindful of New York sniper Marian Gaborik coming up the slot, didn't challenge enough and parted his pads just enough for Richards to find room from a bad angle.
Good luck coming back from a two-goal deficit in a series that will be played in a closet, just the two these teams were in last round. That said, Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom hit posts in the third period that made Henrik Lundqvist -- the luckier tender in Game 1 -- the better goalie nonetheless.
If that continues, the Rangers are going to make short work of the Caps, like Tampa Bay did in this round a year ago. New York won on 14 shots and can win without many more.
Of course the Caps had only 18, a fine number when you win 1-0, but nothing that is going to get you anywhere in the long run, not when you have a missile like Ovechkin that largely has been put in the silo.
"Playoff hockey at its best," said Washington coach Dale Hunter.
On the contrary most of us have seen much better playoff hockey than 32 shots and 30 blocks combined. That's not enough offensive zone time to compel us to watch, nor propel a team with weapons into another round.
"I wasn't very impressed with our game," said Green, much more the truth teller than his coach. "We need to push back, especially in this building."
Sometimes that pushback has to come from a big save, which the Caps didn't get on the game-opening goal either. New York's Artem Anisimov was stronger than Green on a wraparound, but also stronger than the kid goalie, who failed to stand his ground.
After that first round by Holtby, he may be forgiven one bad game, but not likely two, when goals in this series will be such at a premium.
"This team doesn't give up much so we have to be smart with pucks," said Lundqvist. "They kind of wait for mistakes so the key is for us is to not make too many."
That includes in goal. Holtby looked precocious against the Bruins and ordinary in Game 1 against the Rangers. That is going to have to change as soon as Game 2 or the playoff story won't for the Capitals.Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg
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