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Capitals make their mark in Game 1 against stunned Rangers

NEW YORK -- What is the Russian word for "I’m open"?

Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward was asked this question following his stunning buzzer-beating goal in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

His answer?

"Um ... Ovi!"

That’s what Ward was screaming at Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin with the seconds ticking away in regulation of a 1-1 game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

His hollering was rewarded, as Ovechkin made a deft feed to distribute the puck to Ward right in front of the Rangers' net, where he buried a shot with 1.3 seconds remaining to give the Capitals a dramatic 2-1 win and send the Blueshirts off the ice absolutely shell-shocked.

Ward didn’t even waste time lingering around the net or stealing a glance at the video board, instead speeding toward a gaggle of his teammates to join in the celebration, still unsure of whether the goal would stand up.

“We were just high-fiving, dancing. I didn’t even know if I beat the buzzer or not,” Ward said.

Ward’s clutch goal further bolstered his reputation as the type of player who steps up in the most critical situations, and the Capitals’ morale-boosting win, which gives the team a 1-0 series lead, buttressed the notion that they will be a fearsome opponent this Stanley Cup playoffs. Helping matters is the superior play of Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby, both of whom were phenomenal in Game 1.

Ovechkin was dialed in, physical and engaged from the start and hell-bent on making his mark on this series early.

He did that, ripping an absolute laser of a wrist shot past Henrik Lundqvist at the end of the first period for a power-play goal and a 1-0 lead. It was a shot that the former Vezina Trophy winner realistically had no chance at stopping.

“I don’t see too many goalies stopping that, to be honest,” Ward said. “If you give us all 100 pucks, nobody’s gonna hit that spot. That’s 'O,' that’s what he’s been doing. ... What a beast he is. What a shot.”

Afterward, Ovechkin was shown on the television broadcast taunting Lundqvist as he skated past: “All series, baby. All series.”

If Ovechkin, who finished with a goal and an assist, continues to have such an impact, that will spell trouble for the Rangers.

New York comes into this series as the top seed by virtue of its Presidents’ Trophy-clinching regular season, but there should be some concerning takeaways from the Rangers' opening match against a familiar foe.

On Ovechkin’s first goal, he was given an alarming amount of space, and he wasted no time in exploiting that.

“Probably the gap could’ve been a little bit tighter,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after the game.

The Rangers cannot afford to give Ovechkin, the 2015 Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner and Hart Trophy finalist, the luxury of time and space again or else they might find themselves in a 2-0 hole heading to D.C.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz was effusive in his praise for No. 8, waxing about his first meeting with his new charge after taking the head-coaching job in Washington this past summer.

Trotz spelled out how he wanted Ovechkin to play, with and without the puck. He made it his mandate to show him how to lead. And so far, Ovechkin has held up his end of the bargain.

“He’s bought in,” Trotz said. “He’s a rare talent in this league.”

Trotz even went so far as to liken him to one of the Rangers’ most iconic captains.

“He’s very similar to Mark Messier,” Trotz said. “Those rare talents that can play a very heavy game, intimidate you with his speed, intimidate you with his physicality and skill. That’s a pretty rare talent and Ovi’s been terrific as an all-in player for us this year.”

Holtby was also spectacular in stopping 31 of 32 shots faced while matched up against one of the elite netminders in the league in Lundqvist.

“I think Holts was unstoppable today with some huge saves,” Ovechkin said.

Holtby yielded nothing until the third period, when the Rangers tied the game on a deflection with less than five minutes to play, but he remained unrattled and buckled down for the final minutes of the game.

He was prepared to go to overtime -- pretty much everyone was -- until he saw the sequence unfold at the other end.

“At that point, the last three minutes of the game is basically overtime,” Holtby said. “At the same time, when I saw Ovi kick it into high gear with 10-15 seconds left, I knew something good could happen 'cause he turns it on and anything can happen.”

While the Capitals were engulfed in celebration after the game, the Rangers were livid in defeat, primarily because of the hit that preceded the game-winning goal.

Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom checked Dan Boyle into the boards, forcing the veteran defenseman to go down and cede the puck to Ovechkin. Backstrom wasn’t penalized on the play, but the Rangers didn’t seem to be pleased, with at least one player calling the hit “cheap.”

Vigneault declined to comment on the play, telling reporters he would not be talking about the officiating. He wasn’t very illuminating on Boyle’s status, either.

When asked if Boyle was injured, Vigneault responded: “Couldn’t tell ya. Didn’t ask.”