In a matchup of two teams headed in opposite directions, the team trending upwards came out on top. And it wasn't close.
The New York Rangers trounced the free-falling Washington Capitals 4-1 at the Garden Sunday night, leading 3-0 after one, and cruising to victory. Rick Nash scored the first two goals of the game, giving him 14 and the team lead, Ryan Callahan had a shorthanded tally, and Derek Stepan made it two goals in as many games. Henrik Lundqvist turned aside 24 relatively pedestrian shots for the win.
It was a washout right from the very start.
Just 1:10 into the contest, Nash swooped in and intercepted a weak Dmitry Orlov breakout pass, drove to the net, and deked to his backhand to beat Philipp Grubauer before much of the Garden faithful had even settled into their seats. The early goal appeared to rattle young Grubauer, who looked unsteady even on the shots he managed to stop the rest of the way.
But the Rangers gave the German-born netminder a reprieve for much of the remainder of the opening frame, allowing Washington to control the puck, if not necessarily generate quality scoring chances. When the Caps took two penalties late in the period–giving the Rangers a 5-on-3 power play–all that changed.
Nash connected again almost exactly 15 minutes after his first goal, when his quick shot from the right circle beat Grubauer 5-hole, making it Nash: 2, Washington: 0. The pair of markers gives The Big Smooth 7 goals–including two multi-goal performances–in his last 8 games.
"(Nash) brings such confidence to the group when he is playing like this" said Henrik Lundqvist. "It's fun to watch him play right now.”
Things quickly got even worse for the downtrodden Capitals.
Right after the second of the two Caps penalties expired, Derek Stepan's wrister through traffic beat Grubauer–who was looking the wrong way–to make it 3-0 Rangers. That would be all for the rookie goaltender, who was lifted in favor of Braden Holtby for the second game in a row. It didn't much matter.
Alex Ovechkin connected for his league-leading 35th with a bullet of a one-timer on a 5-on-3 advantage less than a minute into the second–momentarily giving the Caps life–but it was short lived. Ryan Callahan provided the answer for the Rangers 2:25 into the frame, breaking down the ice shorthanded with Dominic Moore, and depositing Holtby's generous rebound into the net.
That was essentially the straw that broke the Capitals' back.
Washington would make one more attempt to get back into the game. Mike Green appeared to score off a feed from Ovechkin midway through the 2nd, but the goal was wiped out by an unnecessary Martin Erat interference penalty. The Caps generated very little offense otherwise. Erat, who's already asked for a trade, appeared dead set on accelerating that process by taking three penalties–including nearly castrating Brian Boyle as the latter laid atop the puck.
The Rangers–who did not play their best game, but didn't need to thanks to the mistake-prone Capitals–improve to 27-21-3, and move into 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division. Now winners of 3 in a row and 6 of 7, the Blueshirts are slowly starting to put some distance between themselves and the muddled mass of mediocrity that is most of the Eastern Conference.
With 57 points, the Rangers find themselves as close to Boston (63 points, first in the Atlantic), as they are to New Jersey (51, on the outside looking in at the playoff picture)–a far cry from just a few weeks ago when the Blueshirts seemed destined to be a bubble team themselves. Rick Nash said:
"These are kind of the moving months, moving weeks, where you have to start climbing the standings.”
Of late, the Blueshirts have taken those words to heart. Playing in the little brother of the two conferences kept the Rangers from being buried while they adapted to a new system, but now, they've been gifted a golden opportunity to put the mediocrity that is the majority of the East in their rearview mirror.
-The win puts the Rangers back over .500 at home (12-11-3).
-Henrik Lundqvist, with wins in 5 of his last 6, gets back to .500 personally (17-17-3) for the first time since 10/7–the second game of the season.
-Bizarrely, during Rick Nash's streak of 7 goals in 8 games, he hasn't recorded an assist.
-The Rangers are 6-1 with Dan Carcillo in the lineup. Coincidence? Yes.
-Give the much-maligned Michael Del Zotto credit: Since last being made a scratch on 1/3, he's quieted down his game and limited the careless mistakes. He hasn't scored much, but he's playing the type of low-risk hockey you need your 3rd pair D to play.
-Folks, don't hate Alex Ovechkin, feel bad for him. The Caps are in a whole heap of trouble, and if the Adam Oates era ends in disaster, he'll likely–and unfairly–take the brunt of the blame. He's a generational talent, who's had the misfortune of landing with an organization that historically has never figured out how to win.
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