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Steve DeShazo: Capitals can’t let one loss cost them a series

WASHINGTON–Marian Gaborik’s goal early Wednesday morning put Washington into a 2-1 hole in their playoff serries with the New York Rangers. Now it’s up to the Capitals to make sure it doesn’t cost them their season.

“It’s just one game,” coach Dale Hunter said. “Now, we’ve got to bounce back.”

That could be more easily said than done. Yes, a 2-1 triple-overtime loss counts exactly the same numerically in a seven-game series as a 10-0 rout would. Psychologically, it could be another story,

“It’s tough,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “You invest a lot every night, no matter what, if it’s a 60-minute game or extended into overtime. When you extend into overtime, you are investing more and more and you are putting everything you’ve got into it.”

Does that mean there will be nothing left in the tank for Saturday’s Game 4, which now looks like a must-win? Probably not, but the Capitals were running on fumes at the end of a 4 1/2-hour marathon.

Even more telling than the Rangers’ 2-1 series lead may be the edge they showed above the shoulders.

“When you get to that many hours of play, it becomes a mental game,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “I felt as the game got longer and longer, I felt we were at an advantage. We’ve got a mentally tough group..”

The Capitals have proved themselves pretty resilient, too. They rebounded from a first-round Game 1 overtime loss to eliminate defending Stanley Cup champion Boston in a deciding seventh game on the Bruins’ ice.

And they seem to thrive on adversity, whether it comes from the opponent or is self-inflicted–like Hunter’s well-publicized convservation of Alexander Ovechkin’s minutes.

For the past few days, Ovechkin’s ice time (or lack thereof) was almost as hot a topic in D.C. as the snniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s demise–and nearly as polarizing. It might have reached health care debate status if the Capitals hadn’t won Monday night’s second game–thanks to a third-period power play goal from Ovechkin himself.

Ice time was not an issue Wednesday night. And to his credit, the Capitals’ caprain has been diplomatic on the topic–but the message apparently registered.

On his very first shift Wednesday night, Ovechkin flattened the Rangers’ Dan Girardi. He was credited with three first-period hits–and took at least that many. One came from New York’s Marc Stahl as he split two defenders to put a blistering wrist shot on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

And if either of two Ovechkin shots that slipped past Lundqvist weren’t stopped by the post (one in the third period, one in the sixth), the Capitals would have been physically exhausted but mentally joyful.

Instead, they have to regroup. Forttunately for them, Game 4 isn’t until Saturday afternoon, meaning there’s 60 hours between games.

“Mentally, we’ll park it,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We didn’t get the result we wanted, and physically, it took a lot out of us. It did for both teams.”

True, but victory is a great elixir. The Rangers likely won’t be quite as sore Thursday.

And the Capitals need to make some tweaks in their game plan before Saturday to counter the Rangers’ fierce forechecking, which has often made it difficult for Washingon to clear the puck out of its defensive zone. Eventually, that deificiency proved costly in Game 3.

“They’ve been doing it all series,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “They pinch at the lines and take the walls away, so you have to clear through the middle, which is more dangerous. We’ve got to do a better job.”

Strategy can wait until Friday. On Thursday, the Capitals will lick their wounds, rest their legs and try to mend their psyches.

They’ve thrived on adversity so far this postseason, and as long as they have Braden Holtby in net, they have a chance.

But Saturday brings their biggest challenge yet.

“We need to get our rest,” wing Troy Brouwer said, “and we need to get excited.”

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