NEW YORK -- The fans gave Jan Erixon a car for extra effort in the regular season, the coach gave Bernie Nicholls a seat on the bench in Game 80 for the lack of it.
Last night, Erixon's trademark work ethic provided one critical goal, as he scored, while on his back, with his feet in the air. Nicholls' new-found energy level added the winner -- hoisting the New York Rangers to a 2-1 Madison Square Garden triumph in their playoff opener with the Washington Capitals.
Nicholls, in fact, was so energetic he bolted the Garden before the media horde could descend on him. Having said a heaping mouthful after being benched for the final game of the regular season, Nicholls apparently decided silence was as golden as the opportunity he converted for the winner at 16:58 of the second period.
"Bernie came back strong," Rangers coach Roger Neilson said after the best-of-seven series opened just as it did last year -- before Washington roared back with four successive triumphs. "We sat him out his game, he knew why, and good professional athletes bounce back."
For once, the talk about the playoffs being "a new season" was more than rhetoric. The Rangers were 0-11-4 when they scored two goals in a regular-season game and they didn't play a single 2-1 decision. If they wanted to set a tone for newness, then, they succeeded with a hard-hitting, hard-working, three-zone effort that simply was better than Washington's in every area.
The Capitals spent the night trying to lug the puck 200 feet, while both Rangers goals came off transition plays that started on bad passes by Washington defensemen.
Mike Richter, who lost both his starts in last season's playoff ouster by the Capitals, lost his shutout bid with 1:33 remaining when Michal Pivonka whacked in a Calle Johansson rebound after John Druce -- the Ranger-killer last year -- had swung over it in the slot. Still and all, the Capitals were kept to the outside very effectively by Rangers' team defense that was so lacking in March.
The Rangers had wanted to use their transition game as a weapon against the Capitals, and they used it to perfection with the second-period goals that provided a 2-0 lead. Quick turnaround passes by Darren Turcotte and Brian Mullen created the Erixon and Nicholls scores and put the Rangers in commanding position.
The Capitals paid dearly for the absence of defensemen Mikhail Tatarinov (torn hamstring) and Al Iafrate (personal problems). Kent Paynter, summoned from the Skipjacks to replace Iafrate, handed a neutral-zone pass directly to Turcotte -- who played a masterful game. Turcotte fed Erixon on the counterattack and Erixon zoomed into the attacking zone wearing a Paynter raincoat.
Eventually, Paynter dove to the ice and cut Erixon's skates out from under him. But Erixon, virtually on his back, still somehow swept a backhand inside the post at Don Beaupre's left to give the Rangers the lead 4:20 into that middle period.
"I'm probably better off," said Erixon, who had seven regular-season goals, "when I have my skates in the air and no time to think."
A critical play by David Shaw helped preserve the lead. Barely 40 seconds after the score, the Capitals mounted a three-on-one break, but Shaw blocked Rod Langway's shot, averting a goal that could have restored Washington's hope.
Beaupre made a fine sprawling stop on Kris King off a Turcotte face-off victory with 7:05 gone in the session to keep the visitors within a goal, then the goalpost to Richter's right did the same.
Mike Ridley steamed inside James Patrick and got off a shot from the slot that struck the post dead-on and came back to the Capitals' center. Richter, on his right side, got his arm on Ridley's rebound try to preserve his one-goal lead.
And that proved critical at 16:58 when Mullen stripped a Calle Johansson pass just outside the blue line. Mullen's quick pass sent Nicholls up the left side for a two-on-one against Kevin Hatcher with Erixon as the decoy on the right flank. Nicholls waited for Hatcher to drop to his knees -- impeding Beaupre's vision -- and snapped a 20-foot shot that found net.
The game, if not the series, may have witnessed a turning point just 12:41 into the contest when referee Bill McCreary boxed Joe Kocur for roughing Capitals defenseman Ken Sabourin. Kocur attempted to get Sabourin to play into his strength, which is fighting, but Sabourin kept his composure.
This was hugely significant for a number of reasons. First, the Rangers' penalty killing had been lousy the closing 25 games or so. A goal at that stage would have shaken the Rangers' confidence and given the Capitals the lead. And it could have caused Neilson to be extremely cautious in his deployment of Kocur, who had said time and again at practice Tuesday that he would be smart in his aggressiveness.