Anton Stralman, Brandon Prust, Rusian Fedotenko and others celebrate the...

Anton Stralman, Brandon Prust, Rusian Fedotenko and others celebrate the Rangers' first goal. (April 28, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

From his body language, Chris Kreider was clearly frustrated. Just before the seven-minute mark of the third period in a tight game to open the Rangers' Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Washington Capitals Saturday, he made a rookie mistake.

"I was a little slow and threw a really weak pass trying to rim it around behind the net, and they jumped up ice," Kreider said. "And I'm not the best backwards skater, so it wasn't a good play at all."

But the rush stalled and Kreider pivoted and sped back down ice to receive a long pass from Derek Stepan. He whacked a 43-foot slapper past goaltender Braden Holtby on the stick side to break the tie. The Madison Square Garden sellout crowd chanted his name, and the goal sparked the Rangers to a 3-1 victory in the first game of the best-of-seven series.

"I think the release kind of fooled me a bit," said Holtby, who was spectacular in the first round when the Capitals kayoed the defending champion Boston Bruins. "I don't really know why. It was a nice-placed shot, you have to give the guy credit. But from that far out, I'd like to have it back."

Brad Richards scored his third goal of the postseason just 1:30 later on the 12th shot on Holtby and the Rangers shut down the Capitals the rest of the way. Game 2 is Monday night at the Garden.

Neither team generated much offense in the matinee -- there were a total of 32 shots -- but a terrific penalty kill with the game scoreless in the second turned the momentum toward the Rangers, who advanced to the second round by beating the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 on Thursday.

The Rangers held off the Capitals during a 34-second five-on-three after Marc Staal and then Brandon Prust were sent off. The Garden shook every time the Rangers cleared the zone. In the dying moments of the power play, Henrik Lundqvist got his left arm on Alexander Semin's rising shot, just enough for the puck to hit the crossbar, one of the biggest of his 17 saves.

"Huge kill," Staal said. "A couple big blocks and Hank made some saves, got the crowd into it, brought some emotion to the bench."

The Rangers grabbed a 1-0 lead on Artem Anisimov's wraparound with defenseman Mike Green draped on him at 12:38. "Nobody was in front, so I brought the puck to the net and got a lucky bounce," Anisimov said of his first goal of the playoffs.

But Jason Chimera's re-direction of Brooks Laich's pass tied the score with 3.6 seconds left in the second. Said Lundqvist: "Your brain starts [thinking about] if I should've stopped that. The important thing is we went out in the third and took charge and didn't sit back. Coming from Game 7, such an emotional and big win, it was important for us to regroup and start all over."

And that's what happened.

"Right from the faceoff, we got the forecheck going, kept the pucks below the hashmarks and played a simple game," said Ryan McDonagh as he and Dan Girardi limited Alex Ovechkin to one shot.

"We tried to stay up in his face and not give him too much time to wheel around," Girardi said.

The Rangers prevailed despite missing two centers: Brian Boyle, who suffered a concussion on a hit from Ottawa's Chris Neil in Game 5, and Brandon Dubinsky, who suffered a leg injury on a check from Zack Smith in Game 7.

"It's going to be a grind," coach John Tortorella predicted. "But we're just going to play our game. We're not changing anything."

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