NEW YORK — With captain Alex Ovechkin back in the Madison Square Garden dressing room nursing a lower-body injury, the Washington Capitals took the ice without him and were immediately under siege by the star-studded New York Rangers on Tuesday night.
And there was Patrick Kane, the future Hall of Famer whom the Rangers acquired in a blockbuster ahead of the trade deadline, who scored his first goal in his new home arena later in the period on a 40-foot rocket that gave New York a two-goal cushion in an eventual 5-3 win.
“The hole sucks,” Capitals center Nic Dowd said. “Getting behind one or two or three goals is tough, but I thought we were right there in it.”
Over the past two weeks, the Capitals found themselves in a better place after a miserable midseason slump, earning seven points in their previous five games and producing one of their most complete games of the season Saturday in a 5-1 win at the New York Islanders. That victory was sweetened by the presence of loved ones who accompanied them for the Capitals’ annual mentors trip, and they arrived in Manhattan on Tuesday confident they could continue to claw back into the Eastern Conference wild-card race with 15 games remaining.
But that push took a blow when Ovechkin, who did not practice Monday, was ruled out with a lower-body injury before puck drop. To makes matters worse, winger Sonny Milano, who had six points in his previous seven games, sat out with an illness.
“We’re so used it. It’s like one game — we have a full roster,” Dowd said. “... Whoever you’re playing with, you got to play well that night. [Winger Conor Sheary] was on like three lines on the list this morning because we didn’t know what was going on. Guys have done a really good job adapting.”
Washington is winless in the six games Ovechkin has missed this season, and it didn’t take long for the Rangers to take advantage Tuesday: Zibanejad scored just 4:09 in. The Capitals tied it when Nicolas Aube-Kubel scored at 14:29. But then Shesterkin took control of the puck in the crease and flipped it to Rangers winger Artemi Panarin at the Capitals’ blue line. The Russian star evaded Capitals defenseman Alexander Alexeyev and fed Zibanejad for a backhander past Washington goalie Darcy Kuemper to make it 2-1 just 16 seconds later.
Kuemper (31 saves) had been strong as the Capitals’ last line of defense this month — he had a 3-1-1 record with a 2.17 goals against average and a .932 save percentage in his previous five starts — but he couldn’t erase all of Washington’s mistakes Tuesday. That included late in the first period, when the Rangers’ power play dazzled with crisp passing to set up a 74-mph slap shot by Kane that beat Kuemper through traffic at 18:46. And it included a rush early in the second, when Kane settled near the top of the faceoff circle, dropped off a pass for a streaking Vincent Trocheck and watched as Trocheck swung the puck across the ice to wide-open defenseman Jacob Trouba for a goal that pushed the lead to 4-1 at 4:09.
“They came out on their toes ready to play, and we were second in a lot of areas,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said.
The Capitals trimmed their deficit to 4-2 on a goal from defenseman Matt Irwin, just his second of the season, at 12:08. Washington had a four-on-three power play early in the third period, and center Dylan Strome toe-dragged his way into the slot and rifled a shot on net. But Shesterkin snagged it with his glove, bringing many in the home crowd to their feet with perhaps the best of his 28 saves.
Washington kept pushing, and Dowd scored on a rebound to pull the Capitals within 4-3 with 8:12 left. But after Shesterkin knocked away several attempts to tie the score, Washington pulled Kuemper before Jimmy Vesey came away with the puck and backhanded it from the Rangers’ zone into the open net at 17:49.
“I thought we outplayed them the majority of the game,” Dowd said, “minus that first 10, 12 minutes.”
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:
Protas and Snively in
With Ovechkin and Milano out, the Capitals shuffled their lines, inserting Joe Snively on the third and Aliaksei Protas on the fourth. Snively, a Herndon native, was recalled from Hershey of the American Hockey League. He had last played Feb. 16. Protas, who was recalled last week, had not appeared since Feb. 12; he had the primary assist on Aube-Kubel’s goal.
Laviolette didn’t have an update on whether Ovechkin or Milano would be back for Wednesday night’s home game against the Buffalo Sabres.
“I have no idea,” he said. “Whatever our lineup is, it’s got to be ready and we got to win a game.”
Sandin stays hot
Already the first player in franchise history to record eight points in his first four games with the team — as well as the first to post three multi-point games in his first four games with the Capitals — defenseman Rasmus Sandin recorded his ninth point in five games with an assist on Irwin’s goal. Sandin entered the night already owning the franchise record for assists (seven) in a player’s first five games.