WASHINGTON, D.C. - Last season, the Washington Capitals faced a potential series-clinching Game 5 against the Montreal Canadiens. After winning three straight games in the series, including two at Bell Centre, the Caps returned home to Verizon Center with a raucous crowd behind them. It only took 90 seconds for that advantage to be sucked away. Montreal struck twice within the first seven minutes of the game in an eventual 2-1 victory that ultimately turned the tide in the series.
Exactly one year later, last season's demise was the furthest thing from their minds.
"Honestly, I didn't mention it once," Karl Alzner said. "I don't think I heard anyone mention it once. I think we were just so focused on this game, this team, it didn't matter what had happened in the past. We had a great plan and everyone bought in."
What Alzner is referring to is the intense first period that propelled the Caps to a 3-1 win over the New York Rangers in Game 5 of their 2011 NHL Playoffs series and a 4-1 series win.
Coming into Saturday's game, the Caps and Rangers had played four scoreless first periods, only one away from setting a NHL playoff record for most scoreless first periods in a single series. Washington, however, didn't take long to fix that, scoring 5:59 into the game by dominating puck possession and striking just 16 seconds into its first power play. The Caps swarmed the crease, leaving Henrik Lundqvist vulnerable to a Mike Green putback that gave them the lead in both the game and the series for good.
"In the first period, I thought we had a very good effort, especially in the first 10 minutes of controlling the puck in their zone and making it tough on them," Brooks Laich said. "But last year, we did the same thing, but we just weren't able to get a goal. This year, we were able to get a goal. I think that really sets the tone for the hockey game and the rest of the game I think we were pretty systematic and didn't give them much."
"I think that was probably one of the best starts we had all season," John Carlson said. "Nothing really changed. Everything just stepped up a little bit more. We get that first goal and everyone kept rolling."
The Caps outshot the Rangers 13-6 in the first period, not including 13 blocked shots. Washington only scored one first period goal in the series, but not scoring in the first 20 minutes did not come as a surprise, considering that they were 29th in the NHL with 54 first-period goals.
But the defense did its part to frustrate the Rangers as well. The penalty kill, as it did all season, was spectacular, going 19-for-20. Michal Neuvirth stopped all 38 combined shots he faced in each first period of the series. The Caps are the first team since the 2007 Anaheim Ducks to not allow a first period goal in five games in the playoffs. Anaheim would win the Stanley Cup that season.
"I think we were playing really good," Marcus Johansson said. "We got the puck deep and we kept it in their zone a lot of time. We were working very hard the whole game and that's what matters in the long run. When we play like that, we're going to be successful if we work like that."
Entering the game, the Caps had held a 3-1 series lead on nine separate occasions, but had blown such a lead four times. Against the Canadiens, Washington let up and allowed Montreal to get back into the series, regardless of the play of Jaroslav Halak. Within the first 10 minutes of Saturday's game, it was obvious that that wouldn't be the case again.
"We wanted to go after them instead of sitting back," Bruce Boudreau said. "We wanted to play with a lead. We were, I thought, as aggressive as we've been offensively in the first period."
For the first time since Boudreau took over as head coach in November 2008, the Caps will not play in a series that goes the entire seven games. With time to rest up for the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Caps must harness the energy from Saturday's first period in order to move even further.
"Last year, when we had the lead 3-1, we thought it was over, and it was not over," Alex Ovechkin said. "We relaxed. Right now, everybody focused and nobody relaxed."