Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green, right, celebrates his goal with Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, during the first period in Game 5 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoff series against the New York Rangers on Saturday, April 23, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have skated into unfamiliar territory. They have finally finished a series early, earning a bunch of days off during the playoffs.
Ovechkin quickly raced past and around defenceman Marc Staal to score the game's highlight goal in the second period. In the process, the Capitals made short work of the New York Rangers, beating them 3-1 Saturday to win the first-round series in five games.
"We've never done it before," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I'll have to give my head a shake when I wake up tomorrow and wonder where we're supposed to be playing."
Boudreau had led the Capitals through four playoff series since becoming coach in 2007, and all four had gone seven games. Three were won by the other team, including a first-round defeat to the Montreal Canadiens last year after Washington took a 3-1 lead.
"Last year, when we had the lead 3-1, we thought it was over, and it was not over," Ovechkin said. "We relaxed. Right now, everybody focused and nobody relaxed."
The three other Eastern Conference series will all need at least six games to complete, giving Washington time to take a breather while waiting to find out the next opponent. The Capitals hadn't won a series in fewer than seven games since 1998, when they beat Buffalo 4-2 on the way to their only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Their last loss in fewer than seven was to Tampa Bay in 2003.
"It couldn't have gone too much better than the way it did," defenceman Karl Alzner said. "We said to ourselves we wanted to try and win a series, if we can, in four or five and get as much rest as possible—because you definitely feel the effects through a seven-game series."
Mike Green and Alexander Semin also scored for Washington. Green seemed to be OK after taking another puck to the head. Michal Neuvirth made 26 saves and had a shutout until the final minute as the more defensive-minded Capitals allowed only eight goals in the series—and just two in their three home wins.
While Washington's players were intent on proving they can finish off an opponent, its fans were determined to win the shouting match with their New York counterparts. Rangers fans serenaded Boudreau with, "Can you hear us?" in Game 4 after he said the fans were louder in the nation's capital.
"Can you hear us?" goes without saying in the always sold out din of the Verizon Center, located in the city's Chinese quarter, so the Capitals fans alternated "Let's go Caps" with "We are louder" and held up signs such as "No MSG in our Chinatown."
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis' production crew put on another laugh-out-loud pre-game video, featuring "Friday the 13th" footage and the words "April 20th: Game IV—Jason Takes Manhattan," a reference to Jason Chimera's winning goal in double overtime of Game 4 in New York on Wednesday.
No doubt the dispute will linger over whose building is louder, but the more important argument has been firmly settled: The team from Washington is better.
Wojtek Wolski scored the lone goal in the waning seconds for the Rangers, who barely squeezed into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed with a dearth of skill players further depleted by the absence of second-leading scorer Ryan Callahan. Callahan broke a leg in the final week of the regular season.
"When I look back at the series, when we face a team like Washington that I think may be a little bit better, a little more skilled, we got some opportunities and you need to grab them. And we didn't," said New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who sat dejectedly in the locker room before speaking. "We had a chance to get some wins in (overtimes in) Game 1 or Game 4. You can't expect to win every night, but when you have that chance and opportunity, you need to grab it."
Rangers coach John Tortorella characterized the season as something like a stepping stone.
"We're still in a process, so we just keep on going and try to get better," Tortorella said. "I think there's areas in our team where we need to get better, so we continue to build."
Game 5 was the genesis of the Capitals' downfall a year ago, when they allowed two quick goals against the Canadiens. There would be no slow start this time.
Washington dominated the first period,putting constant pressure on Lundqvist and outshooting the Rangers 13-6, not counting 13 more shots that were blocked.
The onslaught produced the first first-period goal of the series, a power-play score that came when Green came to the side of the crease to poke in a rebound that deflected off Rangers defenceman Dan Girardi and into the net. Instead of a celebration, there was a melee: New York's Brandon Dubinsky shoved Brooks Laich into the crossbar, starting a six-player scuffle that resulted in four roughing penalties and a Rangers bench minor.
Green missed 26 of the last 28 games of the regular season with a concussion after taking a shot off the head on Feb. 6 and elbow to the head from New York's Derek Stepan on Feb. 25. Green went down again in a scary moment Saturday, when he was hit flush on the helmet by a shot from Rangers defenceman Matt Gilroy.
Small pieces of Green's helmet went flying as he lay on the ice. He went to the locker room under his own power and later skated during a timeout but didn't play again.
"He's OK. We could have played him," Boudreau said. "The longer it went, we kept saying, 'Let's see if we can get by.' ... I wish he'd get the magnets out of his helmet."
Notes: Ovechkin and Semin each scored three goals in the series. ... Capitals RW Mike Knuble missed his second straight game. The Capitals haven't disclosed his injury, but he was struck on his right hand by a shot in Game 3. ... Tortorella said Girardi sustained a dislocated finger and had X-rays taken after the game. ... The home team won four of the five games, bucking a league-wide trend in which the visiting team took 22 of the first 37 games in this year's playoffs.