For a night, the Washington Capitals showed how they can assemble a victory by sustaining quick pressure on opponents to force turnovers, getting the entire lineup involved physically, gaining contributions from their top players and trusting in the style of play that they’ve been asked to execute.
By following that recipe Wednesday night, the Capitals beat the New York Rangers 4-1, besting a team that entered Verizon Center as the Eastern Conference leader and on a five-game winning streak.
Alexander Semin recorded his first multi-goal game of the year, Alex Ovechkin (two assists) posted multiple points for the first time in 24 games and tallies by Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer powered Washington’s offense. Tomas Vokoun finished with 31 saves in his first start since Dec. 13 but more important than any individual outing was the fact that the Capitals appeared to be reading the same program when it came to the game plan.
“Everybody played,” said Coach Dale Hunter, whose record is now 6-6-1. “It’s up to them on the ice to do the little things like blocking shots, taking a hit on the boards to get it out of our own end. . . . We did it very well tonight. We were physical on the boards and got pucks out, the team sacrificed their body to win.”
While there were times that the Rangers threatened throughout the contest and forced defensive breakdowns, Washington got a few lucky bounces and didn’t allow itself to become rattled and instead relied on the simple, chip-and-chase plays that they have resisted in recent games to help them escape tough situations.
Slow starts have been a recent bugaboo for the Capitals and for early portions of their contest against New York it looked like the trend might continue. The Rangers controlled the play early, caused Washington to scramble in its own zone but they couldn’t cash in on their best opportunities — including a confidence-building stop for Vokoun on Artem Anisimov to keep the game scoreless before seven minutes had passed.
“Tomas made some big saves when we needed it,” Jeff Halpern said. “I think overall we did a good job.
“I’m sure there’s some areas we want to improve on but I thought we did a good job of having some jump and trying to establish a forecheck to at least set the game up for us.”
Washington weathered the scoring chances and would be the first to crack the scoreboard. After a turnover by Rangers’ defenseman Michael Del Zotto, Johansson gave the Capitals’ a 1-0 lead 8 minutes and 18 seconds into the first when he fired a rebound into an open cage. The rebound New York’s backup goaltender Martin Biron (19 saves) left following a shot by Halpern allowed Johansson to record his first goal in 21 games.
The goal offered a spark for the Capitals, whose strides started to look a little stronger as they won battles for the puck and checked with a little more intensity against a New York squad with the reputation for grit and cohesion.
“All through the lineup guys were just playing tough not letting guys get free passes in front of our net playing hard on our cycle,” Brouwer said.
“When you play tough, when you play hard it makes it hard for the other team to create anything.”
Washington killed two penalties — it thwarted five by game’s end — but the Rangers evened things up on a goal by Brandon Dubinsky before the intermission.
The Capitals kicked off the second period with sustained hitting and pressure on their foes and midway through the frame they were rewarded. Carlson blasted a shot from the point that Brouwer, who was screening Biron perfectly, redirected into the net to give Washington a 2-1 lead 10:24 into the second.
Another tough play yielded results for Washington as Ovechkin stepped up and leveled Brad Richards, causing the veteran center to give up the puck. Nicklas Backstrom gained possession and immediately threaded a pass to Semin, who was just crossing into the offensive zone when he received the puck.
The Russian winger powered his way down the right wing, curled toward the net and just before the angle became too steep, Semin sent a wicked backhand shot just inside the left post. Semin’s tally gave Washington a 3-1 lead 13:02 into the second for a valuable and rare two-goal lead heading into the final period.
Following the win, the Capitals are 10-0-0 when leading after 40 minutes of play.
In the third period, a would-be goal by Ryan Callahan was erased because the Rangers’ captain kicked the puck in and Semin would add his second goal for a final flourish with 17:25 gone in the frame to make it 4-1. Semin has three goals and six points in the last five games.
“We’re a good team. We haven’t showed that in long time, or we do for one game,” Vokoun said. “If we play consistently like that it’s hard to beat us.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a 21st consecutive game with a strained right groin muscle. The defenseman has not played since suffering the injury on Nov. 11 in New Jersey. . . . Jay Beagle returned to the lineup after missing 31 games with a concussion, which he suffered back on Oct. 13 when he was knocked out in a fight by Pittsburgh’s Arron Asham. The fourth-line forward saw 5:55 of ice time in the contest and finished with no points and a penalty.