Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

WASHINGTON - The Rangers hit the road in the first round of the playoffs and did what they usually have done away from the Garden, winning both games in Pittsburgh en route to a five-game series victory.

That was then. This is now. On Monday night, there would be no road triumph to begin the first trip of the second round, only a roadblock on the path back to the Stanley Cup Final.

As expected, the Capitals are proving to be a more formidable obstacle for the Rangers than the Penguins were, this time illustrated by an exciting but excruciating 1-0 win at the Verizon Center that gave Washington a 2-1 series lead.

Sure, it was yet another flip-a-coin one-goal game -- make that 10 in a row for the Rangers in the playoffs dating to last year's Stanley Cup Final -- but the visitors' dressing room was full of testimonials to the Caps afterward.

As the Islanders learned before them in the first round, the Capitals are big, tough, talented and deep, backed by solid young goalie Braden Holtby.

"It's not going to be easy,'' said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was very good in his 100th playoff game but still was outdueled by Holtby, who was impenetrable.

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What has he done to make him so effective?

"He's stopping the puck,'' said Martin St. Louis, who accounted for one of Holtby's 30 saves by shooting the puck into his chest on a breakaway. That left St. Louis with as many goals in this year's playoffs as you and I, making him one of several duds among the Rangers' big regular-season scorers.

"They're so good at blocking out that we have to work to get on the inside,'' Rick Nash said. "They're letting Holtby see everything.''

Said Marc Staal: "We weren't getting enough of those secondary opportunities to jam some rebounds home. It wasn't enough to break through.''

Even Lundqvist offered an opinion on the limping offense, saying, "It's hard for us to get pucks through. They're blocking a lot of shots and they're in the lane making it tough for guys to get to the net. Not a lot of second opportunities.''

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The only goal, at 7:31 of the second period, was a wraparound by Jay Beagle that bounced in off Keith Yandle and then Lundqvist.

"It's just tough luck,'' Lundqvist said. "The rebound goes around the net and Keith goes down and it hit his leg and before you know it, it's in the net . . . It happens.''

Said Staal: "It's the playoffs. You're going to have some ugly goals. We just didn't do enough to create our own ugly goals.''

At least this time Lundqvist kept Alex Ovechkin off the scoreboard, twice making dramatic saves on him on early power plays and later benefiting from a shot that hit the crossbar.

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Who wins the second-round playoff series?

Rangers in 7 Capitals in 5 Capitals in 6 Capitals in 7

Here's the thing about all of these low-scoring one-goal games the Rangers play: Every one can go either way, and that is a dangerous way to survive and advance. It means the margins for error are slight, and when the competition steps up in class, the results can flip. Just as caps cover pens, Caps cover better than Pens.

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Nash lamented missing a chance to win "when our goalie gives us a chance. We have to take our offense and our net presence up a little.''

There were far more theories than goals to be had for the Rangers, whose power play continues to sputter along, too.

All is not lost, of course. The Rangers are too good and too experienced to fall apart at this stage. But they already have lost twice as many games in this series as in the previous one.

Buckle up, this could get a little bumpy.