Second-period hiccups cost Capitals in physical Game 1 loss to Rangers

NEW YORK — To have a chance, the Washington Capitals know they need to keep the game close. They are heavy underdogs in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the New York Rangers, and their best hope for pulling off an upset is to avoid multi-goal deficits. If they have to chase the game, they’re in trouble.

For much of the first period Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals played the kind of tight, evenly fought game they needed. But the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers blew the game open in a little over two minutes of the second, and that was more than enough for New York to roll to a 4-1 win in the physical series opener.

Goaltender Charlie Lindgren, making his playoff debut, stopped 27 shots for Washington. Igor Shesterkin made 20 saves for New York. Game 2 is Tuesday night.

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A lack of offense was Washington’s Achilles’ heel for most of the regular season, and that problem remained for Game 1 of the playoffs. Coach Spencer Carbery said a few days earlier that his team needs to put more pucks on net; shot totals in the low 20s, he felt, wouldn’t be enough in this series.

Washington recorded 21 shots on goal Sunday. Defenseman Martin Fehervary scored the lone goal on a deflection off his skates near the front of the net — after the Capitals had fallen into a 3-0 hole.

“We’ve got to do a way better job offensively,” Carbery said. “It’s no secret; we’ve struggled all year. But we’ve got to find ways to create more on the interior. We’ve got to skate out of pressure.”

The first period featured more special teams play than is typical in the postseason. Each team had two power plays, and the teams spent two minutes at four-on-four, but neither side broke through. For the Capitals, killing two penalties against the regular season’s third-ranked power play could have — and perhaps should have — given them momentum, but they couldn’t find traction on the other end of the ice.

“They’ve obviously got very good special teams over there,” defenseman John Carlson said. “To shut them down on the PK was big momentum for us. We had plenty of chances to grab it through those kills, through the power plays, but when you let it blow in the wind, you never know what’s going to happen.”

The tightly contested matchup broke wide open early in the second period. As the Rangers worked the puck around the net behind Lindgren, defenseman Alexander Alexeyev lost contact with New York forward Matt Rempe, who found space at the back post. He was perfectly positioned for a tap-in finish off a feed across the crease from Jimmy Vesey at 4:17 — much to the delight of the home crowd, which christened Rempe a cult hero mere seconds into his NHL career back in February.

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The crowd chanted Rempe’s name when he lined up for his first shift; the chants returned — and multiplied in volume — after he scored the first goal of the series.

It took the Rangers 33 seconds to double their lead. New York again worked the puck around the offensive zone, and forward Alexis Lafrenière took defenseman Vincent Iorio out of the play with a hit along the boards. While Iorio was down, Vincent Trocheck found Artemi Panarin on an offensive-zone two-on-one — Panarin, who had 49 goals in the regular season, beat Lindgren over the glove.

Iorio exited with an upper-body injury and did not return. Carbery did not have an update on his status after the game.

Iorio’s teammates, particularly winger T.J. Oshie, were irate that there was no penalty called on Lafrenière. Carbery called the hit “borderline” but pointed to Iorio needing to release the puck quicker to avoid ending up in a vulnerable position.

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“Young player. [I] feel bad for him because he puts himself in a tough spot,” Carbery said. “Probably needs to move the puck quicker there, just get it out of his hands. He hangs on to it and bobbles it.”

Vesey made it 3-0 with a shot that fooled Lindgren off a faceoff win by Barclay Goodrow at 6:23. In just 2:06, the Capitals went from having a chance to getting blown out.

“They’re opportunistic,” Carlson said. “They’re a good team. We know they’re going to be able to bury chances. We know we can’t be giving them two-on-ones in the middle of the ice and stuff like that. It’s nothing we didn’t expect, nothing we haven’t talked about. We have a chance to play a lot better, and I think for us, just regroup and put our heads down, go back to work like we always have.”

Fehervary got Washington on the board at 7:31; winger Tom Wilson’s pass toward a net-crashing Fehervary deflected off several skates, including Fehervary’s, before evading Shesterkin. The goal gave the Capitals some life, but they weren’t able to build on it.

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Two more power plays, one in the second after Fehervary’s goal and one early in the third, came and went without a goal. Getting four power-play opportunities in a playoff game is far from a guarantee, and for Washington, which had the best power play in the NHL from the all-star break to the end of the season, failing to score on all four was an opportunity missed.

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“Entries were a massive issue, as everybody watched,” Carbery said. “We’re going to have to start there before we can even talk about the in-zone sequences and what we’re looking for. … We’ve just got to do a way better job.”

Washington didn’t show much push in the third period. Its most promising shift ended with Chris Kreider skating in alone on Lindgren and beating him with a backhander past his outstretched pad at 16:17, locking up a Game 1 win for New York.

At practice Monday, the Capitals’ focus will be on finding ways to generate more offense and improving the power play. Both factors will be critical if Washington is going to bounce back in Game 2.

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