Saturday, April 23, 2011 5:48 p.m.
Updated at 7:56 p.m.
BOX SCORE CAPITALS PAGE CAPITALS VIDEO
By Mark Zuckerman
Inside the home locker room at Verizon Center before the start of Game 5 Saturday, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau saw a bunch of players frothing at the mouths to go out and attempt to win this series in front of a rabid home crowd.
Given the history of this franchise, most notably last season's first-round collapse against the Canadiens in an identical situation, there was reason to worry about the Caps' ability to seize these kind of moments. But given what else had been going on around the NHL in recent days, the last thing Boudreau wanted was a locker room full of over-amped players.
"We were a little worried, because I think it was nine road teams in a row have won games in the last three days," the coach said. Then Tampa comes in and beats Pittsburgh 8-2 earlier Saturday. We tried to calm the players down before the game, rather than ramping them up. I don't know the reason for it, but maybe the home teams are getting so excited playing in front of their crowds that it's almost being detrimental. So we tried to calm them down."
If the Capitals squad that emerged on the ice moments later and dominated the opposition en route to a series-clinching, 3-1 victory was calmed down, imagine what the amped-up version might have looked like.
"They played maybe the best period of their career in the first period," Boudreau said.
Indeed they did. Washington stormed out of the gates, got an early power-play goal from Mike Green and never eased off the gas pedal in dispatching the Rangers before an ecstatic crowd of 18,398 that serenaded the Rangers with chants of "Can you hear us?" and "We are louder" straight through the final horn.
And just like that, a first-round series that might have been teetering on the brink two periods into Game 4 at Madison Square Garden (where New York fans hammered away at Boudreau with similar taunts) was over. For the first time in 13 years, the Capitals won a playoff series in less than seven games.
Whether or not this five-game victory catapults the Eastern Conference's top-ranked team to even greater heights, the Caps can sleep comfortably knowing they've overcome their biggest demon from one season ago.
"There's a little bit of relief," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We are a complete different team this year. The whole circumstance is different. But it is nice to get a round out of the way."
The Capitals did so by taking control of Game 5 from the moment the puck dropped. Forty seconds in, Alex Ovechkin nearly scored on a breakaway. Five minutes in, having already played almost the entire game to that point in New York's zone, they went on a power play. And seconds later, Green took a pass from Ovechkin, slid the puck into the crease and watched as Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi kicked it into the net for the afternoon's first goal.
The crowd roared with approval. The Rangers took out their frustration on the Caps, with Brandon Dubinsky and Chris Drury instigating a fight behind the net.
"We got a good start," center Marcus Johansson said. "We played hard, and we got the puck deep. We didn't give them much breathing room in the first 10 minutes, and I think we got them a little tired."
By the end of the period, the Caps were out-shooting the Rangers 13-6. By the midway point of the second period, after Ovechkin had scored on a nifty maneuver around Marc Staal and Henrik Lundqvist, the shot differential was 17-7.
Much as New York tried to mount a comeback, the Capitals wouldn't let them even sniff the possibility. What few shots were attempted by the road club were stuffed by goalie Michal Neuvirth, who continued to quietly dominate this series.
The 23-year-old netminder, appearing in his first NHL playoff series, wound up stopping 94.3 percent of shots fired at him. He allowed one goal in three games at Verizon Center until the Rangers finally tallied one in the final minute Saturday.
"I'm telling you, a lot of people don't know his name too much, outside of our circles," Boudreau said. "But he's a heck of a goalie."
Neuvirth was on the receiving end of more cheers than perhaps anyone else Saturday. Though by the time Alexander Semin scored late to make it 3-0, it was difficult to distinguish one cheer from another. The crowd essentially offered up one sustained roar until the final horn sounded.
"That was amazing," Neuvirth said. "After we scored the third goal, that was the loudest place I've ever been. It was special."
The Capitals will have to find a way to sustain this momentum through what is likely to be a long period of downtime. They won't know the name of their second-round opponent (Buffalo, Montreal, Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh) until Sunday evening at the earliest, and they may not know until Wednesday evening. No matter the opponent, the next series isn't likely to begin until Friday or Saturday.
By then, the Caps will have had plenty of time to soak up the joy they experienced Saturday in finally winning a short series, not to mention plenty of time to prepare for what still lies ahead.
"It's not over yet," Ovechkin said. "It's just one step."
Contact Mark Zuckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.