Facing the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals could be forgiven for playing cautious and tense. Instead, with a playoff berth secured thanks to results earlier in the week, the Caps played a confident game and dominated the New York Rangers from the first shift to the last in a 4-1 statement win on the road in Madison Square Garden.
Alexander Ovechkin, Mathieu Perreault, John Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom all scored for the Capitals, while rookie Braden Holtby earned his fourth win of the season in a dominating performance all around by Washington.
Ovechkin opened the scoring just 32 seconds into the game on a wrist shot from the top of the left circle off a clean face-off win by Brooks Laich. Head coach Dale Hunter continues to skate Ovechkin and Backstrom on separate lines in an attempt to balance his team’s offense. So far, that balance has been impressive.
Two minutes and two shifts after Ovechkin’s goal, Perreault deflected Roman Hamrlik’s blast from the point beyond Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s reach, and the Caps held a two-goal lead after 2:18 of play, while Washington and New York fans were still adjusting to the 6:30 pm start time.
When all was said and done after the first 20 minutes, Washington held a 3-0 lead on the strength of three goals on just seven shots against Lundqvist and the Rangers. Carlson potted the Caps’ third strike of the period on a power play slapper from the blue line that hit off a Ranger in the high slot before finding the back of the net. All three goals were on outside shots, a surprising turn of events considering Lundqvist is one of the front-runners for the Vezina Trophy for the best goalie in the league.
When Backstrom scored his 14th goal of the season, and first since returning from a two-month absence due to a concussion, at 5:58 of the second period, it gave the Caps a seemingly insurmountable 4-0 lead. New York’s Brandon Prust foiled Holtby’s shutout bid and put his team on the board seven minutes later when he slipped a wraparound through the goalie’s legs, but that was the extent of the Rangers’ success.
Though the Ovechkin and Perreault goal gave Washington comfortable breathing room from the beginning of the game, Holtby nonetheless had to play strong in the face of the Rangers’ heady offense. Holtby turned aside 35 shots, a deceptively small number thanks to his stellar rebound control that prevented most New York second chance attempts.
Heading into the playoffs, continued strong play by the 22-year-old rookie netminder will be key to prolonging Washington’s season. Both of Washington’s top two goaltenders for most of the campaign, Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, are out with injuries. Vokoun’s groin will keep him out of the action for several weeks, and Neuvirth suffered a lower-body injury on Thursday night and his availability for the first round is still in doubt. Dany Sabourin, who spent all but the final day of the season in Hershey with the AHL’s Bears, would be the backup if Neuvirth remains out.
Washington’s win, combined with a loss by the Ottawa Senators earlier in the day, guaranteed that the Caps would finish in either 3rd of 7th place in the Eastern Conference, pending the result of the Florida Panthers’ season finale.
Florida led the Carolina Hurricanes by a margin of 3-0 after two periods at publication time. If that result holds, Washington will finish 7th and visit the Boston Bruins in the first round. The Caps beat Boston in three of four meetings this season.
The goaltending situation means more emphasis will be placed on the Caps’ potent offense, which lay dormant much of the season. Backstrom’s return will help the team immensely, as will Ovechkin’s strong recent performance. His first period goal was his 38th of the season, likely allowing Ovechkin to finish in the top five in goal-scoring for the sixth time in seven seasons, pending the outcomes of several late games. Washington’s captain scored his 10th goal in 12 games to redeem what was looking like his worst season as a pro, goal-wise, earlier in the year.
Abram Fox is the Washington Capitals Page Editor for District Sports Page. He has been covering the Capitals from the press box since the 2007-08 season.