Braden Holtby wasn't sure what was taking so long.
The third period had come to a halt with slightly more than four minutes left when referee Chris Rooney needed a second opinion on Rangers defenseman John Moore's tough angle wrist shot. The puck seemed to roll behind the Capitals goaltender and almost vanish into thin air as he twisted around to snare it with his left hand.
After a short delay, Rooney ruled that Moore's shot did not cross the goal line and Washington's two-goal lead was secure.
"it kind of rolled into the palm of my hand," Holtby said as he described one of his 35 saves. "It was in my palm the whole time."
Holtby's comments were apropos, considering how the Capitals had the Rangers in their palm Thursday during their 3-1 Game 1 victory, bending them to their will as many wondered what took them so long to grasp Adam Oates' unique brand of aggressive hockey. The Capitals dominated for stretches of all lengths, from the first 13 minutes where they outshot the Rangers 12-1 to the 46-second goal-scoring outburst in the second period that squeezed out whatever life was left in their playoff nemesis.
It was a stark contrast to the types of games these two teams played just one year ago in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Under former coach Dale Hunter, Washington played a poor man's version of New York Coach John Tortorella's defensive-oriented scheme, content to chip pucks, crawl into a defensive shell and live to fight another day while holding onto a lead.
One year later, against a common postseason enemy, the Capitals' transformation was even more distinct. Nearly three-quarters of Washington's lineup played in last season's series, but it looked like a completely different team. The pugnacious Capitals pushed the pace even after forwards Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera lifted them to a 3-1 lead near the end of the second period and gave the Rangers very little room to breathe, forcing pucks in deep and killing time with strong cycle shifts.
"We played kind of the same way that we always like to play," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We didn’t take our foot off the gas too much. We don’t change our style of play for anything now.”
Oates' system had produced discernible postseason success even before he arrived in Washington last summer, but the Capitals reaped the rewards for the first time Thursday, a feeling that they surely wouldn't mind growing accustomed to.
"When we play the game we're supposed to throughout 60 minutes, that's when we're really good," Johansson said. "I think we did that tonight."
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