The New York Rangers came to town, HBO 24/7 cameras in tow, with a five-game winning streak, perched atop the Eastern Conference. Their opponent, the Washington Capitals, were 4-5-1 in their last ten games, coming off an embarrassing 4-2 loss on the road in Buffalo where they gave up the first three goals in the first ten minutes of the game. Twelve points separated the two teams in the standings, and they appeared to be going in different directions.
Amazing the difference one game makes.
The Caps got two goals from mercurial sniper Alexander Semin, killed off all five Rangers power plays — including two back-to-back late in the third period, and Tomas Vokoun stopped 31-of-32 shots, as Washington defeated their once-and-future division rivals from New York, 4-1, before another sell-out crowd at Verizon Center.
The Capitals, 4-1-0 in their last five home games and 12-5-1 overall at home, have not surrendered a power play goal in their last seven home games. They inched closer to respectability in the East, pulling to within one point of Winnipeg and Ottawa for eighth place and just three points behind New Jersey, who own the sixth seed in the conference.
It was a much-needed performance after Monday’s dispiriting effort against the Sabres. The Caps used a heavy forecheck early, with hits being doled out by captain Alex Ovechkin and forward Jay Beagle, in his first game back after missing 31 games with concussion symptoms, to strike first. Marcus Johansson picked up a fumbled puck by Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto and left a drop pass for Jeff Halpern. Halpern let go a hard, low shot that Rangers goalie Martin Biron (19 saves) kicked right to Johansson, who deposited the puck in the open net for the 1-0 lead.
Brandon Dubinsky tied the game with less than three minutes in the frame, snapping a shot over Vokoun’s catching hand on a two-on-one, after John Carlson fell trying to defend the offensive blue line. The game remained knotted until mid-way through the second. Carlson redeemed himself for the fall, keeping a puck in this time at the blue line, and unleashed a hard shot that hit Brouwer — perfectly stationed at the top of the crease — and deflected past Biron.
All that was left was for “Good Sasha” to take over the game.
Less than three minutes after Brouwer broke the tie, Semin got a great long feed from center Nick Backstrom, raced down the right wing, crossed of front of Biron and beat him easily with a backhand. The play started with Ovechkin levelling Brad Richards, who had delayed at the blue line waiting for teammates to get onsides.
It was the perfect example of what coach Dale Hunter has been preaching since he took the reigns of this team; defensive responsibility will breed offensive chances.
The final goal came at 17:25 of the third, when Ovechkin gained the offensive zone and carved up the New York defense, hitting a cutting Semin in stride on the right wing with a cross-ice pass, and Semin delayed, then flicked a wrist shot past the outmatched Biron.
“He’s a sniper and he can score, but he played the right way,” Hunter said of Semin’s performance. “He was back-checking and he created opportunities because of good defense and that whole line and that’s what we needed from them.”
The fourth goal was icing on the cake at that point, but it came after the Capitals killed off two successive bad penalties as time was winding down. Dennis Wideman was whistled for an obvious elbow attempt along the boards; that he didn’t really land the blow was immaterial. The second that penalty expired, Brouwer batted a puck that was flying through the air into the stands, causing a delay-of-game call. Backstrom and Mike Knuble did most of the heavy lifting on the second kill, as they were stuck on the ice for almost three-quarters of the second call.
“It’s just commitment by the guys, blocking shots,” Hunter said. “You saw the blocked shots out there. The puck does hurt and they committed to it and that’s why we killed two off late. They had a good power play and good players on it, but you saw guys going down and blocking shots and that’s commitment to win.”
This was a big win after the debacle Monday night. “Getting the first goal and getting the lead is huge in this league,” Hunter said after the game. “We came out playing the right way and the guys put together a good 60 minutes.”
It was big, too, since it was on national television and the Rangers have been playing well. And of course, the spectre of the hidden HBO cameras, following the Rangers around for the “Road to the Winter Classic” program, added a whole different context to the contest. The Caps had to know that a lot of people — some who have already pronounced the demise of this version of the team – would be watching the results of this game.
So we’re back to this, the Caps defending their home ice, looking now to build a winning streak and get on a roll. The Sabres come to town Friday, and the Caps will look to avenge Monday’s defeat. Then they’ll move on to Columbus on New Year’s Eve to face one of the worst teams in the league before having a couple of days off. Would be nice to be sitting on a three-game winning streak during those days off.
CAPS NOTES: Washington outhit New York 22-15 and blocked 20 shots to the Rangers 18. The Caps won 55 percent of the faceoffs.
Jay Beagle returned to action and played nine shifts (5:55 TOI). He contributed two hits, one shot, and won 3-of-4 faceoffs.