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NHL Playoffs 2011: Physical Play, Michal Neuvirth Give Capitals A Blueprint For Success

Thanks to physical play and a sparkling effort by Michal Neuvirth in Game 1, the Capitals have once again made it clear that they are a completely different team than in the past.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Down 1-0 in the third period, the Washington Capitals could have called it a day. Henrik Lundqvist received some help from the crossbar early and the Capitals hadn’t converted on several other scoring opportunities. However, these aren’t last year’s Capitals.

Washington played their system to a T, beating New York at their own physical game while creating the bulk of the scoring chances in a grinding 2-1 overtime win.

Meet the new Caps; the ones who don’t take everything for granted. The frenetic pace, big hits and fearless shot blocking?

"I think there’s going to be games like that all series," said Alex Ovechkin whose inhuman effort in front of the net resulted in a game-tying third period goal.

If Wednesday was any indication, the Capitals are finally willing to employ gritty, playoff style hockey. They are no longer that complacent bunch of uber-talented individuals who were ousted in the first round last season.

Should the series maintain its physical nature, the Capitals have to like their chances after wearing down Dan Girardi and Marc Staal in game one. John Tortorella relies heavily on his top defensive pairing to shut down the opposition’s first line and last night was no exception. Both played over 30 minutes as the Rangers tried to account for the Capitals top two lines.

"We did some work on them," Matt Hendricks said. "I think they showed a little bit of fatigue. It’s kind of been our gameplan [wearing them down], it’s kind of what we want to do throughout the course of this series."

If the series maintains the physical tone set in game one, then the Capitals defensive balance will give them even more of an edge. While Girardi and Staal spent nearly half the game on the ice, Bruce Boudreau was comfortable with evenly distributing the minutes among his defensemen.

"Whenever you can spread those minutes out more, it definitely benefits your team in the sense of fatigue," Hendricks said.

Given their recent track record in the playoffs, a Game One loss for the Caps might have been perceived as devastating, but win or lose, the style of play was what Boudreau was looking for. All game long they got pucks deep and made smart decisions in the neutral zone, preventing New York from mounting many odd man rushes. Even down late, they didn’t panic.

"There was a lot of time left in the third so we weren’t feeling completely desperate yet," said Mike Knuble. "We just kept playing, kept sticking to the program. Nobody was getting upset because we were sticking to our gameplan doing what we wanted to do."

With the outstanding play in front of him, Michal Neuvirth didn’t disappoint in his NHL playoff debut. He was cool and collected even after he allowed the game’s first goal. In overtime made several key saves including a tough one on Artem Anisimov in the slot.

"If you want to be a number one goalie in this league you got to make those stops," he said. "Your teammates are counting on you and I don’t want to let them down. I’m trying my best and going save by save, minute by minute and it’s working so far."

Neuvirth never let the Rangers get in his head. His lid came flying off in overtime just minutes after he took a stick to the mask, but the contact did nothing to alter his performance. Hendricks wasn’t surprised to see the young netminder hold his own.

"[He was] outstanding as usual," he said. "Not much rattles him and when you have a goaltender like that who plays on his game, moves the puck well for the defensemen, it’s all you can ask and I’m sure we’re going to see continued success."

We certainly will if Neuvirth continues to receive the support he was given in game one. The Capitals never got discouraged despite allowing the first goal and came back to win thanks to a concerted team effort unlike those in years past.