The Washington Capitals arrived at the midway point of this shortened season Sunday afternoon looking to make amends for a misstep on Long Island yesterday. It was a chance to gain ground on the idle Carolina Hurricanes with two huge games looming between the division rivals in the week ahead. But the New York Rangers have been playing improved hockey, and their 4-1 win today makes it five victories in their last six outings.
The Caps grabbed the early lead in this early game thanks to defenseman Steve Oleksy. While Joel Ward was tangled up with Ranger blueliner Ryan McDonagh just to the left of goalie Martin Biron, Oleksy unleashed a shot that the goalie appeared to track well. Happily for Caps fans the commotion near the crease distracted Biron enough for the puck to get through him and result in the first NHL goal of Oleksy’s brief stint in the big leagues.
The home team controlled the play for the first half of the opening period allowing New York only two shots on goalie Braden Holtby. They had chances to lengthen the lead but did not.
The visitors would knot the score on a goal by Derek Stepan at 11:31. Stepan swooped in from the left-wing side, deked to his backhand and as he was drifting below the goal-line managed to bank a backhander off the right skate of Holtby and into the cage.
Both teams found it tough sledding in the first four minutes of period two. Sound defensive play kept most everyone to the outside.
The Caps had one extensive shift in the Ranger zone close to the five-minute mark, pumping numerous shots toward the goal. John Carlson had the best opportunity to score, but his one-time blast from 35-feet missed wide on the short-side.
Joey Crabb was whistled for a very marginal boarding penalty at 7:36, but the Rangers failed to convert on the ensuing power play.
The Caps wouldn’t be so fortunate the next time. The refs spotted Alex Ovechkin committing two different penalties on the same line shift. While the play continued (with the delayed holding and tripping penalty calls in effect) the Rangers tallied. Brian Boyle’s blast beat Holtby on the glove side to make it 2-1. That goal wiped out one of Ovechkin’s would-be minor penalties.
The Caps captain would have to sit in the penalty box for the other indiscretion and the Rangers didn’t wait long to strike again. Red hot winger Rick Nash ripped a shot that nicked off teammate Ryan Callahan and past Holtby at 11:34. Those two goals in 41 seconds ended the afternoon for Holtby, who was lifted by Head Coach Adam Oates in favor of Michal Neuvirth.
Washington was awarded plenty of power-play time late in the middle period. Skating one-man up, an Ovechkin bullet was stopped by the glove of Biron. Ranger forward Darroll Powe then committed another penalty, which gave the Caps a two-man advantage for 31 seconds.
Biron made a very good glove save to deny Nicklas Backstrom from close range. The Ranger penalty-killers were sliding and diving to help their goalie, with captain Callahan making a critical block to spoil a goalmouth chance.
The third period began with the Capitals still enjoying 50 seconds of time a man up. But they were never able to get any sustained possession of the puck in that sequence.
The first seven and a half minutes of the third period dripped away with few scoring opportunities. The Rangers are normally very tough to beat when they carry a lead into the third. The defense pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi often clamp down their hardest late in regulation.
Marcus Johansson returned to the line-up today after missing a dozen games due to injury. Coach Oates put him on the left wing with Mike Ribeiro and Alex Ovechkin in the third period hoping his speed would help create a spark.
The Caps best chance in the third came with 6:12 left in the game. With the two teams skating 4-on-4, Backstrom put a beautiful move on fellow Swede Anton Strallman, but his shot from a sharp angle was shut down by Biron.
The Rangers salted the game away with a little more than a minute remaining in the contest. Brad Richards buried the rebound of a Carl Hagelin shot past Neuvirth.
A lost weekend to a pair of New York teams leaves the Caps eight points behind the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes. Those two squads will meet at Verizon Center Tuesday night for a 7 p.m. start on Comcast SportsNet.