Photo credit: Kathy Willens
With 11:51 left in the New York Rangers season, Al Pacino came onto the massive screen at Madison Square Garden. In a video familiar to Capitals fans, a scene from Any Given Sunday played.
“The inches we need are everywhere around us,” Pacino yells in the film.
For the Rangers, the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy this year, a few inches here and there had put them on the verge being eliminated from the postseason in early May. In their last eight periods coming into Friday’s game, they had scored two goals. After every loss to the Capitals, three of them heading into game five, they insisted they were about to break through. Every night, the Rangers showered Capitals goalie Braden Holtby with pucks. Though his teammates prevented many of those shots from reaching him, most made it through towards the net. Holtby, as he has all season, stopped nearly all of them.
In a series with some of the most spectacular goals imaginable, Holtby, 25 and a restricted free agent at the end of season, has been Washington’s most remarkable player. In the regular season, Capitals coach Barry Trotz played him more than any other goalie in the league, 73 games total. Through game four of this round, he had given up just 15 goals in 10 postseason games. His 1.48 goals against average and .950 save percentage topped all goalies still playing in the postseason.
But the Rangers offense, which netted 248 goals in the regular season, never disappeared. As their head coach Alain Vigneault reiterated after every game, they were knocking on the door. In the opening three games of the series, they put 94 shots on net. They added another 35 the first 58 minutes of game five. But their chances were running into the league’s hottest goalie, a guy who had been benched for weeks on end just a year ago.
But finally, 101 seconds before New York’s season was set to expire, Chris Kreider beat Holtby on the Rangers’ 36th shot of the night, a one-timer from the near circle.
“I just didn’t see it,” Holtby told reporters after the game.
MSG, completely silent in the proceeding minutes, began to shake violently.
“Sooner or later,” Vigneault said, “one of them was gonna go in.”
Holtby predicted before game five that it would be Washington’s “hardest game of the year.” He was right. Less than two minutes away from reaching the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in 17 years, the Capitals had blown another elimination game.
In the overtime, the Rangers were dominant. Holtby tried to keep Washington afloat. For more than 10 minutes, he did. But the Capitals defense, which had blocked 52 shots in games three and four, was collapsing around him.
“In the end, if you keep doing that, luck’s going to turn the other way,” Holtby said of the pressure.
Finally, with 9:37 left in the overtime, it did. Curtis Glencross, who had given Washington its original lead, turned the puck over on lazy pass. Derek Stepan controlled the puck in the Capitals zone. Completely alone, Stepan waited for defenseman Ryan McDonagh to come flying in. McDonagh tapped a one-timer toward the goal mouth. A split second later, Holtby was sitting the ice with the puck in the back of the net behind him. Tim Gleason, directly in front of Holtby, lowered his head and dropped his stick after realizing the puck had deflected in off his right leg. In just 45 minutes, the world had been turned upside down on the Caps and their fans.
“I don’t even know where it went,” said Holtby of the shot.
Just before 11 PM on the fifth floor of Madison Square Garden, in a locker room littered with athletic tape and empty Gatorade bottles, equipment manager Brock Myles packed the team’s victory peal-off calendar into a cardboard envelop. The eighth square, signifying a second round victory, was still stuck on. As Myles cleaned out the room, Glencross spoke to reporters. He was the last player left. Clearly shaken, he tried to explain what just happened. He couldn’t come up with much.
“That’s hockey,” Glencross said.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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