NEW YORK – On the first off day of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, it was easy to see which club jumped out on top in the opener.
The top-seeded Rangers held an optional practice Sunday, a day after their 3-1 victory at home over seventh-seeded Washington. The Capitals had everyone on the ice at Madison Square Garden, and lined them up in quite a curious manner.
Alexander Semin, who had three goals for Washington in its first-round upset of defending Stanley Cup champion Boston, skated as a fourth-liner Sunday after he took two penalties in the series-opening loss to the Rangers. Semin was on a line with Mike Knuble and Keith Aucoin, but it might have just been a practice ploy by Capitals coach Dale Hunter and not a predictor of what might occur Monday night in Game 2.
“Just mixing the lines up,” Hunter said after practice.
Semin was called for slashing in the first period to negate the rest of the Capitals’ first power play. Hunter seemed to absolve that penalty on Sunday because Semin was trying to play the puck when he committed the foul. The other – retaliation tripping after he was slashed by Rangers captain Ryan Callahan – was understandable in Hunter’s mind, but one Semin just can’t afford to take.
“Both of them should have went,” Hunter said. “It was a cross-check (by Callahan) originally. You just can’t retaliate. He called one, he could have easily called two.
“It’s up to the referees, it’s his call. It’s one of those things, he did get cross-checked but that’s the way hockey is. You have to be smart on the ice.”
That was one of the messages the Capitals were focusing on heading into Game 2. They also lost the opening game to the Bruins in the first round – a 1-0 overtime heartbreaker – but rebounded quickly and went home all even in the best-of-seven series.
A good performance Monday against the Rangers would put the Capitals in the same spot and wrest home-ice advantage away from New York.
“We’ve got to go out right away and play our best game,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “We can’t wait for anything to happen. We have to go out and make something happen – get a good start, get a good feeling and take it from there.”
Washington held the Rangers to only 14 shots in Game 1, but goals by rookie Chris Kreider and Brad Richards 90 seconds apart in the third period turned a 1-1 game into a 3-1 hole.
The Capitals were also frustrated on the offensive side, mustering only 18 shots against the Rangers and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Washington is already trying to deal with getting pucks past the Rangers, who thrive on blocking shots. When they do penetrate the defense, the Capitals still need to find a way to get shots to elude Lundqvist.
“We have to be a lot more desperate,” forward Joel Ward said. “They didn’t get a whole lot of chances, either, so that is a positive we take out of it.
“(Lundqvist) is a good goalie, but he is human. They block a lot of shots and obviously he’s a great goalie, a Vezina candidate, but if we apply enough pressure at least you give yourself a chance. The only way to score is to get pucks on net.”
The Capitals also are adept at limited scoring chances and keeping pucks away from young goalie Braden Holtby.
Both teams blocked 15 shot attempts in the opener, and only the Rangers had more blocks in the first round than the Capitals.
“It’s a new series now and the stakes go up again,” Knuble said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re working that much harder to get shots to the net. You get used to a seven-game series, working at a certain pace and a certain way of doing things to generate shots. Well, maybe it’s going to be a little bit different now with a different set of defense.
“This defense takes a ton of pride in blocking shots and they know they’ve got a world-class goalie behind them. We’re going to have to upgrade our offensive work ethic and work that much harder to score goals.”
Because of that, Holtby knows he has to be better than he was in Game 1.
After the Capitals forged a 1-1 tie on Jason Chimera’s goal in the closing seconds of the middle period, Holtby was done in by the two quick goals that won it for the Rangers.
Kreider’s winner was a long drive from above the circles, a shot that fooled Holtby because he was expecting Kreider to skate in closer before letting the puck go. Facing so few shots during the game seemed to take the edge and focus away from Holtby.
“Bad games happen,” he said Sunday. “You learn way more from losing than you do from winning. There is a lot to learn from that game, not only mentally but technically on some of the goals. It’s just a matter of inches how I played them. It would’ve been a different game. Small things like that but they mean big things in terms of getting better.
“I think I’ll be more prepared for (low shot totals). It will be in the back of my mind to be more prepared for any type of game that comes. Those are the harder games to play when you don’t get much action.”
This was little news or information coming out of the Rangers on Sunday. Big forward Brian Boyle was back on the ice skating for the third straight game, but coach John Tortorella provided no update as to when he might be ready to rejoin the lineup following a concussion sustained in the first round.
After first riding the stationary bike as part of the concussion protocol, Boyle returned to practice on Friday and then skated on his own on Saturday. He was back on the ice Sunday, making it seem more likely that he might play in this series.
“You can’t really predict what’s going to happen, so I’m trying to be honest with myself every day and it’s been getting better every day,” Boyle said. “I know it’s boring, but we’ll see how it feels (Monday).
“I want to get back out there. It’s just tough. What’s smart and the right thing to do, and what you want to do don’t always match up. I’m optimistic to hopefully get back soon.”
Boyle has missed three games since a hit by Ottawa’s Chris Neil knocked the 6-foot-7 center out of action, but the Rangers have won each game Boyle has sat out.
New York was also without forward Brandon Dubinsky in Game 1, and he was seen on crutches Sunday at the team’s training facility, leaving his status for Game 2 in doubt. Defenseman Steve Eminger played as a forward for the first time, logging four shifts for a total of 4:25 of ice time in the opener.
“I wouldn’t put him out there if I didn’t think he could,” Tortorella said. “He didn’t play much, but he played fine.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)