The New York Rangers who showed up on F Street for Wednesday night’s game against the Washington Capitals bore absolutely no resemblance to the Rangers team that opened the season getting outscored by a combined 25-9 on their way to a 1-4 record.
As for the Capitals themselves, the Washington crew did bear more than a passing resemblance to the team that started the season with just two wins in their first six games. The result of the first Metropolitan Division meeting between the two teams was a decisive 2-0 Rangers victory behind goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s 22-save performance.
New York had been on the road for the better part of the last month – the Rangers’ home opener isn’t until Oct. 28 – and they got a couple days at home after Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Blues in St. Louis. It proved to be a tonic for what ailed the Blueshirts.
“We got a day off in our environment and then had two good practices and came here and put our best foot forward,” says Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “I thought our guys competed real hard which is the key to any game, and we did a lot of the right things with the puck, and when we didn’t have the puck, we did a lot of the right things. We’ll take our first win in the eastern [time zone].”
Washington didn’t do those “right” things with the puck, when it had the puck.
For the first time in seven games this season, the Caps and their foes played a scoreless first frame. Washington had the best chance to get on the board first when it drew two penalties in short succession near the midpoint of the first frame.
The initial 5-on-4 power play didn’t offer much in the way of scoring chances, and the Caps weren’t crisp with their passing, a problem that has lingered for a few games now and one that is particularly plaguing the team at even strength. Washington teed up only one shot attempt during the first 65 seconds of that initial man advantage; it was blocked.
With defenseman Anton Stralman already incarcerated for hooking, winger Taylor Pyatt incurred a hooking minor to give the Caps a 5-on-3 power play for 55 seconds at 11:20 of the first.
Washington won the offensive zone draw and its passing was suddenly much sharper. Lundqvist made two saves, and then the Caps were presented with the look they were looking for. Stationed near the left goalpost, Caps right wing Joel Ward accepted a perfect cross-crease pass from Marcus Johansson. But Ward, who scored on the power play on a similar play two nights earlier, shanked the shot and it bounced harmlessly off the side of the net.
“We had a couple of good chances,” laments Caps coach Adam Oates of his team’s 5-on-3 play. “Sometimes you get a little too cute. You don’t want to make a dirty play, but you know what, we made a great play there. If it goes in, like I said, it’s a different game.”
That would turn out to be one of the Caps’ best chances to solve Lundqvist on the night.
Although Washington owned a 23-18 advantage in shot attempts after the first 20 minutes, it trailed 18-16 in even strength shot tries and 11-4 in even strength shots on net.
Those disparities became more pronounced in the middle frame, as the Rangers took charge of the contest.
The Capitals managed to survive an Eric Fehr hi-sticking call early in the period, but New York teed up seven shots during those two minutes, getting five of them on net.
New York seemed to draw momentum from that stretch; soon afterwards they dominated consecutive shifts against Washington’s top two lines, hemming the Caps in their own end and running them ragged.
First the Johansson-Nicklas Backstrom-Alex Ovechkin line was out with defensemen Mike Green and Nate Schmidt. They spent the shift chasing and defending in their own end, a shift that lasted about 100 seconds for the forwards and 2:13 for the defensemen and abutted the first television timeout of the frame.
When play resumed, the Brooks Laich-Mikhail Grabovski-Troy Brouwer line was on the ice along with defensemen Alexander Urbom and John Carlson. The Caps lost the draw, and were right back to chasing and defending. That shift lasted more than a minute for all five skaters, and it resulted in six more shot attempts from the Rangers.
When the second of these two marathon shifts ended at 7:36, the Rangers had taken each of the previous 15 consecutive shot attempts in the game over a span of just 5:24.
The Jason Chimera-Eric Fehr-Ward line hopped over the boards next, briefly giving the Caps a defensive zone reprieve with three shot attempts in Lundqvist’s direction.
Just past the midpoint of the period, Laich got behind the New York defense on a breakaway bid, drawing a holding call on Stralman at 10:42 in the process. The Caps had just one shot on the power play before Ovechkin was sent off for slashing New York forward Derek Stepan, who had broke free on a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush.
With the two teams playing 4-on-4 hockey for a stretch of 1:23, New York won the offensive zone draw and worked the Caps in the Washington end. Schmidt chipped at a loose puck in front, but it went right to New York defenseman John Moore. From the middle of the ice near the tops of the circles, Moore quickly let a shot fly. It went past Holtby’s outstretched glove, rang iron and went in. The shift lasted 46 seconds for all four skaters, all of it in the Caps’ zone.
It would prove to be all the offense the Rangers would need, but insurance was in the offing.
Ten seconds shy of Stralman’s release and with the clubs playing four aside, the Caps sent out Backstrom, Johansson, Carlson and Urbom for a defensive zone draw. The Rangers were set to get a brief 37-second power play when Stralman returned.
New York won the face-off, and maintained possession in the Washington end. Ovechkin exited the box and joined the fray. The Caps managed to block three of the first four shots New York took on this shift, but after a short cycle down low in the zone, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan broke for the net from down near the goal line in the left wing corner. When he got to the slot, Callahan accepted a feed from Brad Richards in the right wing corner and deftly tucked it behind Holtby to make it a 2-0 game.
Backstrom, Johansson, Urbom and Carlson had been on the ice for 1:19 by shift’s end, all of it spent chasing and defending in the Washington end.
“We are a good enough team that we need to have that in the back of our heads at all times,” says Carlson. “When we are playing in our zone, worry about our zone – and then when we go into the offensive zone, that’s our time to shine. I think it’s just taking a little bit different approach.”
Washington was unable to muster much in the way of any sustained offensive zone pressure of its own, and Lundqvist was only tested strenuously on a few occasions. New York put a chokehold on the game in the second period with a 21-6 advantage in shots on net and a 34-13 bulge in shots attempted.
By night’s end, the Rangers had nearly doubled up the Capitals (31-16) in even strength shots on goal.
The loss leaves the Caps at 2-5 on the season, 0-2 against Metropolitan Division foes and 1-3 on the current five-game homestand.
“The preparation in the locker room has to get better,” declares Holtby. “It’s as simple as that.”
Two-Man Trouble – Including Wednesday night’s game, the Capitals have been unsuccessful in each of their last eight regular season two-man advantage power play opportunities. Washington’s last 5-on-3 goal came early last season, on Jan. 25, 2013 against the Devils in New Jersey. Mike Ribeiro was the author of that goal.
Including Wednesday, the Caps are without a 5-on-3 goal in their last 9:25 worth of 5-on-3 time in the regular season.
Capitals opponents have cashed in on seven of their last 10 two-man advantage opportunities dating back to the start of last season, including 1-for-2 thus far in 2013-14.
Even Weakness – Washington’s ratio of .5 goals for vs. goals against at even strength ranks 28th in the NHL this season. The Capitals finished 10th in the league at 1.07 in that category last season.
“We have to take care of our own end better,” says Oates. “We’ve mentioned it lately and you know what, we do – we need to play better in our own end. Obviously, we want to score. We want to get down the ice, but until we cross the blue line, we can’t.”
“We all know we can score,” says Johansson, when asked about the solution to the team’s even-strength woes, “so it’s hard to say, but at the end of the night you have to score goals to win hockey games.”
Unhappy Trails – Washington has surrendered the game’s first goal in five of its seven games this season and has owned a lead at either the first or seconds intermission just twice in 14 intermissions over those seven contests.
First Strikes – Longtime Caps linchpins Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson both scored the first goals of their NHL career on this date in 1979 in an 8-6 win over the Los Angeles Kings at the Capital Centre in Landover.
For Gartner, it was the first of 397 goals in a Washington sweater and 708 in the NHL. Gustafsson scored all 196 of his NHL goals for the Capitals.
Drawing A Blank – Including the last two games of the 2013 Stanley Cup quarterfinal series between the two teams, Lundqvist has now blanked the Capitals in three straight games.
Wednesday’s whitewashing was his first regular season shutout against the Caps since a 6-0 New York win at Verizon Center on Feb. 25, 2011.
Lundqvist’s four career lifetime regular season shutouts against the Capitals are tied for third most all time vs. Washington. Only Ken Dryden (nine) and Martin Brodeur (six) have more.
Turning The Trends – Coming into Wednesday’s game, the Rangers had been outscored 12-3 in the second period on the season and had been outscored 3-0 in 4-on-4 play.
New York scored both of its goals in the second period in the win over Washington, and it collected the game-winner while the two teams were skating four to a side.
By The Numbers – Green and each of the members of the Caps’ top line all averaged at least 59 seconds per shift in Wednesday’s game … Ovechkin paced the Caps with 21:40 in ice time, eight shots on net and 14 shot attempts … The Capitals had as many shots blocked (22) as they got on net … Chimera and Steve Oleksy led the Capitals with four hits each … Urbom led Washington with three blocked shots … Backstrom won 15 of 22 (68%) draws and Jay Beagle won all six of his face-offs … Callahan led the Rangers with six shots on net and five hits.