The Washington Capitals don't have to play the New York Rangers again until after Thanksgiving. For that, they surely will be thankful.
Last night, For the second time in four nights, the Rangers converted their chances and got splendid goaltending from Mike Richter, all of which meant a 5-2 victory over Washington.
The 16,207 at Capital Centre saw one of their former heroes, Mike Gartner, score on a breakaway in the first minute and the Rangers run away soon after. The Capitals were correct when they said they kept working hard, but to say they were in this game all the way was refuted by the scoreboard. The Rangers led 5-0 and prompted Capitals Coach Terry Murray to replace goalie Mike Liut with Jim Hrivnak.
"We play them seven times each year and we lost twice," said Kelly Miller. "Hopefully, we'll win the other five. I like to be optimistic."
The Capitals were just that after beating Winnipeg, 3-1, Friday night in this building and playing a tight defensive game. Tonight, there was regression in that area, while the frustration at scoring chances unfulfilled grew.
"Five games at the start of the season is a workload," Murray said of Liut. "We've asked him to make the big stop all the time and there is a breaking point."
Liut wasn't extremely sharp, but as he said, "a breakaway in the first minute is a tough deal."
Besides Gartner, for whom the goal was the second against his former club, the Rangers' scorers were Brian Leetch, Troy Mallette (twice) and Brian Mullen. The Capitals got a power-play goal from Michal Pivonka and an even-strength goal from Calle Johansson, but by then Richter had thwarted them too many times to matter.
The Rangers, outshot by 42-17 Wednesday, obviously thought they were thumped in the corners because now Coach Roger Neilson played two extra enforcers -- Tie Domi and Dennis Vial. But with the Rangers outplaying the Capitals early, there was little need for fisticuffs.
"You want to get off a to a fast start in the opposition's building," Richter said. "We scored on our first shot and that got our confidence going."
Rangers defenseman David Shaw collected the puck in the circle to the right of Richter and put a beautiful pass on the stick of Gartner just before he got to the redline. By the time he got the puck, Gartner had already split defensemen Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher. One of the NHL's fastest skaters, Gartner moved in on Liut and shot quickly, high to the glove side with 53 seconds elapsed.
"We were all over them on that shift," Capitals center Mike Ridley said. "Then bang! The puck pops loose. The defenseman made a nice pass and he was gone."
Ridley thought the Capitals kept going, but clearly they lost steam when they couldn't convert scoring chances. Dale Hunter and Dino Ciccarelli were stopped by Richter. Bob Rouse hit the post.
With the Capitals' forwards elsewhere and the defense backing up, Leetch snapped a shot past Liut with just 58 seconds gone in the second period. Mallette scored for a 3-0 lead with 11:43 left.
"That third goal I would like to have been stronger on," Liut said. "I didn't jump out."
Hrivnak started the third period, but found himself outmanned. He stopped Bernie Nicholls's shot, but as he was looking for the rebound, Mallette put it in the net. Twelve seconds later, Mullen stole the puck from Mark Ferner and scored with 12:56 left.
Many of the faithful were in the aisles when Pivonka tipped in Hatcher's shot from the point to deny Richter the shutout.
That was little solace, and the Capitals made some postgame changes. Left wing Steve Maltais and defenseman Chris Felix were called up from Baltimore. Ferner is headed back to the Skipjacks, as is Hrivnak. He was here while goalie Don Beaupre played two games for conditioning before rejoining the Capitals for practice today. It's a good guess he'll play Monday in Montreal.
"We did some real good things," Murray said. "But there is always a 'but.' "