Getting to that point included injuries, scrums and heated interactions. Ovechkin's early departure turned into just one of myriad subplots.
The Capitals (33-14-5, 71 points) only had 16 skaters available for most of the contest. Multiple Capitals players — including Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov for disciplinary reasons, T.J. Oshie for personal reasons and Justin Schultz because of injury — were ruled out before the puck dropped.
Washington also went through a stretch with just 15 available skaters after Tom Wilson was assessed a 10-minute misconduct and four minutes for roughing midway through the second period.
With the Rangers up 3-2, Wilson appeared to deal a back-of-the-head blow to Pavel Buchnevich while Buchnevich was facedown on the ice, before Ryan Strome jumped on top of Wilson. Artemi Panarin then joined the fray to defend his teammates, but Wilson wasn't having it and threw Panarin to the ice. Panarin was later ruled out for the rest of the game with a lower-body injury.
It's likely the NHL's Department of Player Safety, with which Wilson has a history, will at least take a look at Wilson's role in the scrum to see if any additional discipline is warranted.
"To me, it's just zero respect for the game in general," Rangers Coach David Quinn said. "You've got one of the star players in the league now who could have gotten seriously, seriously hurt in that incident. You saw what happened, and it happens time and time again with him. It's just totally unnecessary."
The Capitals equalized at 3 on Garnet Hathaway's score late in the second period. The eventual game-winner from Daniel Sprong came 4:37 into the third, a gift of a goal that was the result of a Rangers turnover in their own zone, allowing Sprong to beat Igor Shesterkin unassisted. Sprong has five goals in his past five games.
Nicklas Backstrom made the lead 5-3 with 8:19 left in the third, chipping the puck past Shesterkin. Wilson capped off his night with an empty-netter with 1:26 left.
The Capitals only have four regular season games left. After snapping a two-game skid, they are tied for first in the division with Pittsburgh (34-16-3, 71 points) and have a game in hand. The Rangers were eliminated from playoff contention Monday.
The win improved Washington's playoff position, but it is accumulating other concerns in addition to injury issues.
Kuznetsov and Samsonov did not dress Monday because both were late to a team function. Coach Peter Laviolette declined to expand on the disciplinary action or say whether either would be out for more than one game.
"There's got to be rules, there's got to be boundaries, and there's got to expectations set, and you have to be accountable to them," Laviolette said.
It forced the team to call up Craig Anderson from the taxi squad to serve as Vitek Vanecek's backup. Vanecek made 23 saves on 26 shots and improved to 19-9-4. He and Samsonov have been battling all season for starts, so an off-ice issue surely will not help Samsonov's cause.
Kuznetsov and Samsonov were part of the group of four players — which also included Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov — who violated the NHL's coronavirus protocols early in the season. The Capitals were fined $100,000 after they gathered maskless in a team hotel room, which was a violation of league rules.
On the injury front, Ovechkin, who was hurt April 22, is the primary cause for concern. Laviolette said after the game the decision to call it early was the captain's, noting that Ovechkin didn't quite feel right during warmups.
"We were already shorthanded, so it's not like we were making a lineup decision," Laviolette said. "He got into the game and the first shift he just didn't feel comfortable, so at that point, again, we're not going to push or risk."
Ovechkin, who has rarely missed time because of injury in his 16-year career, has played in 43 of 52 games this season.
Schultz was also unavailable with a lower-body injury. His status is day-to-day. Schultz appeared to get banged up multiple times in the Capitals' 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
One of the positives from the night was defenseman John Carlson, who had missed two games because of a lower-body injury but returned to the lineup and skated his regular minutes.
"At this point in the season and how our schedule down the stretch is and you know, we are all trying to do the right things to put ourselves in position and do the best things for our body to make sure we are right where we need to be in not too long here," Carlson said.