NEW YORK -- The circus played Madison Square Garden in the afternoon and, for the first half of the National Hockey League playoff game that followed last night, onlookers had to conclude pachyderms were still performing in the arena.
Tight, controlled play is always the order of the day come playoff time, but Washington and New York seemed to be overdoing it. Five minutes into the game and the Rangers hadn't put a shot on goal. The Capitals had a half-dozen, none of a serious nature, and celebrated by not registering their seventh until 12 minutes later.
The feeling-out process went on and on. "Great defensive hockey," players and coaches insisted after the Broadway Blues had drawn first blood in the best-of-7 series, 2-1.
Maybe. More accurately, it was conservatism Barry Goldwater would have been proud of and it might have gone on forever had not the home team caught a break.
A turnover at mid-ice saw Jan Erixon suddenly break in on Cap goalie Don Beaupre 4:20 into the second period. He got decked, but said, "I saw the puck the whole time I was on my back. But I didn't see it go in."
The Garden crowd clued him in on his accomplishment. The goal figured to loosen things up. It didn't. The teams slipped right back into their safety-first mode until the Caps were guilty of another blunder late in the period.
Brian Mullen grabbed a sloppy Washington clearing pass, passed it blind between his legs to Bernie Nicholls and the veteran sniper beat Beaupre from about 15 feet. A two-goal lead entering the third period looked a little larger than the Empire State Building with King Kong standing on top.
The Caps made a game of it late, Michal Pivonka scoring with 1:33 remaining, and they tested New York goalie Mike Richter severely in the last minute.
"That's the positive, our play in the third period, we'll be building on for the second game," said Caps coach Terry Murray.
Also, add the knowledge the Rangers won the first game last year before the Caps took the next four and captured their first Patrick Division title.
"Last year's loss at the start shows that what happened tonight doesn't mean that much," said Beaupre, hopefully.
"Hell, I'll take it," countered Ranger coach Roger Neilson. "The ice was a little tough to play on after the elephant show. But we came out planning to play a tough, hard game and that's what it was. . .always is against Washington.
"Thing I had some worries about is us holding our patience to stay with our game plan. But that's what you have to do to win against them."
The Rangers kept their poise and never strayed from the objective of giving the Caps as few opportunities as possible, something that was not lost on Rod Langway.
"We've been hearing stories about how terrible they've been in their zone," said Washington's defensive stalwart. "Tonight, they played extremely well. Smart."
It all might have gone for naught, however, if Richter hadn't come up big one of the few times he was tested. First, Mike Ridley hit the post with a shot and, as he said, "I got the rebound back. But I was at an angle that I just couldn't get it up in the air.
"Then he [the goalie] dove back and put his stick on the ice and I hit it [the stick] as it laid there. If I put the puck about three inches off the ice or higher, it's in."
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Terry Murray recalled an incident, too. Six forwards were on and pressing in the last minute: "Suddenly, Calle [Johansson] had the puck in the slot with a good opportunity. He missed the net."
The coach was calm, as were all his players and their opposite numbers in the Ranger dressing room.
"We all realize one game doesn't do it," said Richter. "What we were out to prove tonight is that we can play a lot better than we did the last month. We proved it in this game. We controlled it and that's the most we could do. It's a start."
And, in a way, it's a conclusion for Erixon, who scored the goal that put New York ahead for good. This time last year, Jan was in bad shape; couldn't even practice between games.
"My back was so bad and had been for so long I finally made a decision: surgery," he recalls.
"Before that, I thought I was going to have to quit. Playing was no fun anymore and I knew I couldn't go on being unable to practice and being sore all the time."
In two previous playoffs, Erixon had been sub-par coming back from a serious shoulder injury and a broken leg. Now he was all smiles, sitting there with half a glacier strapped to his leg. "I've got a bad knee, but it's nothing. Feeling good after a game is a feeling I haven't had in a long time," he said.
Until they get a win, it's a statement the Washington Capitals cannot duplicate.
Game 2 goes tomorrow night (8:30 p.m., Channel 20) after the "elephant show" gets cleaned up.