The Washington Capitals came into Tuesday night’s contest at Madison Square Garden 0-2 against the Rangers on the season. 20 minutes into this affair, which was also the Caps debut of Monday’s big defensive acquisition, Kevin Shattenkirk, it looked like it was going to be 0-3.
Washington had a defensive coverage breakdown at 5:09 of period one that allowed Brady Skjei to tally on a layup on Braden Holtby (29 saves) and take a 1-0 lead. The Rangers would have 11 of the first 16 shots on goal early on and that doesn’t include the three posts they hit that could’ve really put the Capitals behind the eight ball had any of them gone in. New York also benefitted from their home cooking zebra, Dan O’Halloran, who gave them two power plays in the opening frame to zero for the Caps, but more on him later.
The Holtbeast (29 saves) was strong, once again in net, and in period two the game changed rather quickly. Marc Staal decided to stupidly cross check Alex Ovechkin giving the Capitals an early power play. Washington didn’t score, but Shattenkirk manned the point on the first unit and fed Ovi perfectly for a one timer that King Henrik (34 saves) stopped. The Caps would gain momentum and intensity off of that man advantage. They finally started moving their feet and taking the game to the Blueshirts, but Lundqvist was holding steady in net.
A heavy, but borderline hit by Adam Clendening on Daniel Winnik then changed the outcome of the game. #26 didn’t like it, he thought it wasn’t clean, and a few seconds later they both dropped the mitts behind the New York net and Winnik jack hammered Clendening for a TKO victory. The rough stuff further amped up the Capitals intensity and just 21 seconds later, Marcus Johansson tied the game up.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is so important to this club and struggled in period one, made a nice pass to Dmitry Orlov that allowed #9 to exit the defensive zone with speed and fly through the neutral zone. Orlov then carried the puck into the offensive zone and had a nice give and go with Jojo just inside the offensive blue line. Orlov then smartly carried the puck deep and banked it off of Lundqvist’s pads. Johansson alertly went to the net and buried the rebound to tie this one up.
The Rangers then thought they had regained the lead at 11:53 of period two after a puck bounced about 15 feet in the air in the slot and then fell down in the crease where a New York player banged it home before Holtby knew where it was. Once again, the Caps video coaches, led by Brett Leonhardt, caught an offside infraction on the zone entry and Coach Barry Trotz successfully challenged the goal.
That took some more wind from the Rangers sails and the Capitals took over from there dominating the play and pouring tons of shots on the Swedish net minder. Washington’s relentless pressure, the Caps were not only skating, but they were hitting New York and playing with snarl, paid off when Niskanen carried the puck into the offensive zone on a nice rush to set up the game winning goal. The puck actually rolled off of #2’s stick, but Brett Connolly was parked in the slot and he gathered in the biscuit and quickly whipped it in the basket, beating a stunned Lundqvist for his career high 13th goal of the season. Connolly, Lars Eller, and Jakub Vrana had some really strong shifts as the third line.
The Caps took that 2-1 lead to the locker room and then put the hammer down early in period three. Kuznetsov (2 assists) used his speed to back the Rangers defense up, then he fed Jojo in the slot, and #90 deflected it top shelf past Lundqvist to make it 3-1 just 1:15 into period three. That really caught the home town boys by surprise and the Capitals did a good job of keeping the Rangers on the perimeter the rest of the way.
O’Halloran, who at times should just don a Rangers sweater because he has a history of poor officiating against Washington dating back to at least game two of the 2015 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals at the Garden, then gave New York two gift power plays to try and get back in this affair. However, the Caps penalty killing unit wanted none of that and the Holtbeast slammed the door shut. After O’Halloran and his zebra partner, Brad Meier, let a Matt Zuccarello blatant goalie interference on Holtby go uncalled, they finally had to give Washington a second power play when Ryan McDonagh mugged Tom Wilson.
Nicklas Backstrom then tallied on the man advantage on a shot that deflected off of a Rangers defensemen and past King Henrik to make it 4-1 with 2:03 remaining. MSG was mostly empty, at that point, except for some Caps fans who made it up to support their first place squad.
This was a huge victory for the Caps in many ways. First, they had struggled with the super fast Rangers in their first two meetings and the opening period certainly looked like more of the same, but Washington got aggressive and played with an edge. Second, the Rangers poked the bear and the Caps woke up and really handed it to them in the second and third period. In that middle frame, the Capitals out shot attempted New York, 31-16 and for the game it was 65-54. Washington played fast and heavy and the Rangers really had little push back.
Several Capitals played well, despite the absence of T.J. Oshie and Brooks Oprik, who are both day to day. Winnik’s fight, overall tenacity, and super smart hockey in 14:04 was very noticeable. Niskanen, who just returned from missing two games over the weekend, had two assists and was +3 in 18:19 of ice time. #2’s partner, Orlov, was +2 and had an assist while logging 17:14.
Wilson was also outstanding in a high ice time total of 19:34. #43 wrecked Derek Stepan hard early with a clean hit and he was sensational on the Caps PK, which went 4 for 4. Willy did a nice job of jumping up to the first line right wing spot in Oshie’s absence. He was physical and fast for the large majority of the contest and he got under New York’s skin without taking any infractions himself. Well played, Tom.
As for Shattenkirk, well he was pretty darn impressive for a guy who missed the morning skate the night after being traded. #22 had four shots on net and he can really skate and play physical, too. This looks to be just a sensational addition to an already very good hockey team.
I could go on and on about several other players, but I also thought both John Carlson (24:35) and Karl Alzner (23:41) were very strong against the Rangers top guys, which allowed the rest of the Washington lineup, particularly the second line, to win the game. Johansson (2 goals and one assist) was clearly the player of the night for the Caps and he now has a career high 21 tallies this season. He’s been super since Sweden mistakenly left him off of their World Cup of Hockey roster last September. Big mistake guys, big mistake (although the Capitals are benefiting from his fresher legs).
The win, which was Coach Trotz’ 700th NHL victory, puts the Capitals at 42-13-7 (91 points) with 20 games remaining (10 at home and 10 on the road). This has been a grueling stretch coming out of the bye week with five of the six tilts on the road and two back to back occurrences. The Caps went 2-2-1 in the away games in Detroit, Filthy, Smashville and Madison Square Garden (twice) while winning their only home tilt, 2-1, against Edmonton last Friday night.
Now it’s time for some home cooking and the Caps will take on New Jersey on Thursday before they get the despised Flyers in town on Saturday night. They’ll then face the Dallas Stars on Monday at the Verizon Center before heading out to California for three games late next week.
Home ice has been good to the Capitals this season and they’ll have a chance over the final quarter of the season to lock up home ice advantage for the post season.
Notes: Forwards Vrana (9:27) and Riley Barber (7:55) were called up from Hershey with Oshie and Andre Burakovsky out and Zach Sanford moved to St. Louis in the Shattenkirk blockbuster…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 37-33. Backstrom went 16-9…McDonagah led the Rangers in ice time with 23:54…Shattenkirk was paired with Nate Schmidt on Tuesday night.