GAME 2: AT WASHINGTON, FRIDAY, 7:30 P.M., CSN
Wednesday, April 13, 2011, 10:59 p.m.
Updated at 12:23 a.m.
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By Mark ZuckermanStaff Writer
While Alex Ovechkin draws all the attention and the opposing enforcers in his fifth career playoff series and while Michal Neuvirth draws all the shots and the scrutiny in his first career playoff appearance, Alexander Semin quietly goes about his business and tries to remain unnoticed.
The Capitals, though, know better than to turn a blind eye toward Semin. They know his value to this team and his importance toward achieving their ultimate goal.
"We're not going anywhere without him," winger Mike Knuble said. "That was pretty obvious last year when he he had some offensive struggles. He's a game-breaker guy. You've got to have a guy like that."
In Game 1 of what the Caps hope will be a prolonged postseason run, no one proved to be a bigger game-breaker than the soft-spoken Russian with killer abilities.
Semin gave his team a 2-1 victory over the Rangers when he slipped a shot past goalie Henrik Lundqvist 18:24 into overtime, setting off an eruption inside Verizon Center at the end of a tense night of playoff hockey. He also assisted Ovechkin on the game-tying goal late in the third period, coming up large in his 2011 playoff debut after a silent showing one year ago.
"I thought from the moment they dropped the puck, he wants this," coach Bruce Boudreau said of Semin, who had been stuck in a 14-game playoff scoring drought. "He knows he hadn't scored in a while in the playoffs. And to come in and get a goal and an assist when you win 2-1, I think it's a true tell of how bad you want it. I think it was fitting that he scored the overtime goal."
It was a fitting conclusion to a tightly contested, defensively minded game that played out exactly as everyone figured it would going into the series. The top-seeded Capitals and the eighth-seeded Rangers each are committed to defense-first hockey, and neither side strayed from its preferred style during this 78-minute contest.
No one found the net until the third period, when Matt Gilroy took a feed from Wojtek Wolski in front of the crease and beat Neuvirth to give New York a 1-0 lead and leave the crowd of 18,398 biting its nails in nervous anticipation.
Not that the Caps lacked scoring opportunities. They clearly outplayed the Rangers most of the night and had numerous chances, only to find the crossbar or a New York defenseman or Lundqvist's glove.
"They have a great goalie, and they block so many shots," center Marcus Johansson said. "It's hard to score on them. It's going to be these tight games."
The Capitals, whose past playoff failures weigh on everyone's mind, didn't panic. They stuck with their game plan, and with 6:16 to play in regulation got the equalizer from Ovechkin, who somehow managed to jam the puck past Lundqvist and barely over the goal line as the net came dislodged.
Referee Brian Pochmara tentatively ruled it a goal, but it wasn't until video replay confirmed it that the crowd could breathe easy.
"I didn't see the puck," Ovechkin said. "I just tried to hit something, and it goes in."
Energized by the tying goal, the Caps took control in overtime, firing away at Lundqvist only to be denied time after time. Finally, as the period was winding down into its final two minutes, they caught the break they so desperately needed.
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal had trouble clearing the puck out of his zone, and Jason Arnott wound up with it on his stick. The veteran center fed it to Semin in the slot, and the Russian winger slipped a shot past Lundqvist to set off a mad celebration.
"I just saw the puck get intercepted," Semin said through interpreter Slava Malamud. "It's just a situational play. I tried to get open and tried to shoot as soon as possible, because the defenseman was right there."
"Any time you get it anywhere near him, he finds a way to put it in the net or get a good shot off," Arnott said of Semin. "That was the only way we were going to beat Lundqvist: go side-to-side on him. And Sash made a great shot."
A fitting way to end the kind of tense game the Caps and their fans should expect to see plenty more of before this series concludes.
"I thought that was a tremendous playoff hockey game," Boudreau said. "It was a physical game. Neither team gave an inch. It's just an indication of, I think, the kind of series this is going to be."
Contact Mark Zuckerman at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.