It’s the fifth time in seven years the Capitals and Rangers have met in the playoffs, but they’ve apparently still got some new tricks. A closely played Game 1 will be almost totally forgotten in favor of the drama, and controversy, of the final five seconds.
The Capitals won the game 2-1 on Joel Ward’s goal with 1.3 seconds remaining, but the Rangers were furious about the hit that set it up. With time winding down, defenseman Dan Boyle attempted to freeze the puck in the corner. He was flattened against the glass by Nicklas Backstrom, springing the puck for Alex Ovechkin to find Ward open in front for the five-hole winner.
Here’s Backstrom’s hit on Boyle, which the Rangers believed should have been a boarding or charging call:
“I just saw Boyle on the ice after it, but some of the guys saw [the hit] and it sounds like a charge,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “His back is turned the whole way, and he’s just standing there freezing the puck. He takes a run at him. It seems cheap.”
“In the playoffs you’ve got to finish checks,” Backstrom said, understandably telling reporters he believed the hit was clean.
The hit wouldn’t have cost the Rangers the game if they hadn’t reacted the way they did. With Boyle visibly injured, the Rangers clearly expected a penalty and kind of stood around. Two skaters belatedly pursued Ovechkin; no one picked up Ward.
“You have to keep playing until you hear a whistle,” said Lundqvist. “We lost our focus a little bit and gave up the last chance.”
The hit was high, but it wasn’t malicious. (Just look at the outcome: it was a successful hockey play.) A penalty could have been called, but there’s no precedent to argue it should have been called, nor any reason for the Rangers to ease up, believing one would be called. Their own teamwide brainfart is more inexplicable than the lack of a whistle.
Rightly or wrongly, it’s fact that borderline infractions go uncalled in the playoffs, especially in tight games, especially late. The officials wouldn’t have been especially keen to put the Caps a man down to start overtime. That the hit led directly to an injury or a goal couldn’t and shouldn’t affect the officials’ whistle-calculus.
Of course, part of that calculus is that the Rangers now have a semi-legitimate gripe, and will expect to get the benefit of the doubt going forward. Whether it shakes out that way or not remains to be seen, but it’s a long series, and the repercussions of Game 1 should be felt throughout.