NEW YORK -- The Washington Capitals waited until 18 minutes, 27 seconds of the third period to put some suspense into this year's National Hockey League playoff opener.
That's when Michal Pivonka beat New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter to pull Washington within 2-1. And the Caps even generated a chance or two after that.
But that's the way last night's game ended. The Rangers won, 2-1. And only the next game will tell whether Pivonka's goal will signal an awakening of the offense or whether the Caps will be struggling for goals.
Without defensemen Mikhail Tatarinov and Al Iafrate, the Caps made things easy for the Rangers most of the night.
Jan Erixon and Bernie Nicholls scored for the Rangers, and Richter made the necessary stops, at least until Pivonka made it interesting.
Pivonka's goal gave the Caps a chance to pull Don Beaupre in the final minute, and they even created some traffic in front. But Mark Janssens won a faceoff in the last eight seconds and the puck was cleared. So, just as they did last year's Patrick Division finals, the Caps trail the best-of-seven series one game to none.
However, nothing about the game indicated the rest of the series might go as last year's did. That's when the Caps took the next four games.
For one thing, those missing defensemen could have helped during power plays. Second, the Rangers showed no sign of being dominated physically as they were last year.
Washington coach Terry Murray sounded satisfied with his team's intensity.
"It's the first game of the series, you're playing on the road," he said. "The overall intensity was good.
"We did a little bit [of pressing in the offensive zone] in the third period, but that was it." he added. "We did not play well in the second period. We came back in the third period and did some of the things we had talked about."
Enforcer Joey Kocur, sidelined in a series of injuries and suspensions after being acquired by the Rangers from the Detroit Red Wings, was a presence. So was Troy Mallette.
And, in another piece of bad news for the Capitals, the Rangers looked little like the team that closed the season 2-9-1. They covered their assignments, played against the boards, and were lucky when they needed to be.
Even so, the Caps could have taken this game with a goal or two at the right time. But the offense disappeared. John Druce, last year's playoff hero, failed to take a shot on goal in the first two periods. Dino Ciccarelli had one.
Game 2 is scheduled for tomorrow in New York before the series switches to the Capital Centre for games 3 and 4.
Murray said Iafrate could return tomorrow. The series opened with what appeared to be a hometown effort to help the Rangers forget their dismal finish. In an otherwise darkened arena, players were introduced one by one, under a spotlight.
Then the game began and, with Tatarinov and Iafrate sidelined, Caps defenseman Ken Sabourin performed in their absence. Sort of.
By the end of the first period, he had pulled the Madison Square Garden fans from their seats, even if it was just to taunt him from behind the glass.
Sabourin earned their wrath with a diligent and persistent baiting of Kocur. Nine seconds into the game, that pair jawed behind the Washington goal line, and both went off for unsportsmanlike conduct.
On another occasion, Sabourin goaded Kocur into a penalty, then skated away. The Caps wound up with a power play but, for the second straight time, they failed to generate a shot.
Capitals vs. Rangers
,`Last night: Rangers 2, Capitals 1
Tomorrow: At Rangers, 8:35 p.m.
Sunday: At Capitals, 7:35 p.m.
Tuesday: At Washington, 7:35 p.m.
April 11: At Rangers, 7:35 p.m.*
April 13: At Capitals, 7:35 p.m.*
April 15: At Rangers, 7:35 p.m.*
* if necessary