Rod Langway was ailing in a New York hotel room and the rest of the Washington Capitals weren't feeling so good either, but they survived their illness and beat the New York Rangers, 5-4, tonight.
The Capitals got two goals from Mike Gartner and a goal and an assist from Scott Stevens, then held off a third-period rally for a victory over the team they could very well meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Capitals ended their season series with the Rangers with a 5-2 advantage, winning the last five straight and three of four at Madison Square Garden. The victory, coupled with Philadelphia's loss at Boston, puts them four points ahead in the Patrick Division, and it was an encouraging way to finish against the Rangers, who are trying to hold the fourth playoff spot in the division.
"We seem to have success here," Gartner said. "Maybe we like playing here. Or maybe we were just trying to get out of town."
It was probably the latter. Six Capitals were ailing, including captain and defenseman Langway, who was suffering from flu and missed his first game in 2 1/2 years with the Capitals. Others on the sick list were goalie Pat Riggin and defensemen Larry Murphy, Darren Veitch and Dave Shand, all of whom had eaten at a New York Chinese restaurant Wednesday night and spent the day battling nausea. But all made it to the Garden. Riggin felt worst of those who arrived, but he stopped 23 shots.
"I was the only guy really feeling good, until I got to the ice," said Coach Bryan Murray.
Gartner's second goal for the Capitals was the decisive one. Their third power play score of the night, it came at 11:04 of the third period and gave them a 5-3 lead. It began as a scuffle in front of Rangers' goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. Gartner tipped in Murphy's shot, then, to make sure the puck stayed in the net, dived on Vanbiesbrouck.
The Rangers, who had rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to tie it, rallied again. Mike Rogers' 22nd goal of the season, with 2:21 remaining, pulled them within 5-4. They removed Vanbiesbrouck in favor of a sixth man, but never got another shot on goal.
It was a surprising defensive effort by the Capitals in light of Langway's illness. His absence was felt most midway through the third period, but Stevens and Murphy, among others, picked up the slack. The Rangers spent a full 1 1/2 minutes in the Washington portion of the ice and got three straight shots on goal, but came away with nothing. A timeout settled the Capitals down some, and then the Rangers' Ron Greschner left at 9:38 for tripping, setting up Gartner's goal.
"At about 11 minutes they (the Rangers) were really coming on," Murray said. It wasn't normal for us to be that backed up. But the guys stepped forward."
The Capitals took a 4-3 lead at the end of the second period with their first two power play goals, from Gartner and Mike McEwen, and another unassisted from Bengt Gustafsson.
McEwen's goal returned the momentum to the Capitals after the Rangers had scored two straight goals to rally from a 3-1 deficit. He scored on what was a 4-3 power play with a slap shot from above the right circle that bounced off the Rangers' James Patrick.
The Capitals' second and third goals came within two minutes of each other for the 3-1 lead and seemed to signal a blow out. Gartner's first came with 5:58 gone in the second period, when the Rangers' Willie Huber was sitting down for cross checking, tipping in Stevens' slap shot from the slot.
Gustafsson's goal came with 7:19 gone, when he stole the puck from defenseman Tom Laidlaw and pushed in his seventh of the season.
The first part of the period was the Capitals', but the Rangers woke up to score their first power play goal of the night after missing two previous opportunities, when Gartner left for hooking with 7:27 remaining. Greschner got goal No. 13 of the season with an assist from Mark Pavelich.
Anders Hedberg tied it, 3-3, with the goal of the night with 3:48 remaining. He started from his blueline and went virtually unmolested to score his 14th goal of the season.
The Rangers also suffered a loss, when defenseman Barry Beck left with four seconds remaining in the first period after colliding with Gaetan Duchesne at mid-ice. A cut under his right eye required 30 stitches, but he is not expected to miss any games.
Langway is expected to miss one more game, against the Buffalo Sabres at Capital Centre Saturday.