NEW YORK — In a nationally televised game, the Washington Capitals sized up an opportunity to measure themselves against the top team in the Eastern Conference. But despite spurts of strong play throughout the contest, Washington failed to finish on a few too many offensive chances and made a few too many mistakes to surpass the New York Rangers.
Washington fell, 3-2, to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday and is 3-4-3 in its past 10 games. The loss leaves the Capitals (61 points) in ninth place in the East for at least one more day and drops them four points behind first-place Florida in the Southeast Division.
In a tight game, miscues — like defensemen losing track of an opposing forward or allowing a short-handed odd man rush — and missed opportunities — like three shots that rang off the post — can prove costly.
“It’s a close game, you’re a shot away,” forward Jeff Halpern said. “Goals in games like that are huge. . . . You’d like to jump out and score the first one, you’d like to score the next six if you can, but it’s not drawn out that way all the time.”
Things didn’t go exactly as the Capitals planned even before the contest started. Veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun was scheduled to make the start but didn’t feel well; he took warmups as though he would play but then determined he could not go.
That resulted in Michal Neuvirth making his first start since Feb. 1 in unexpected fashion with minimal warmup. Neuvirth finished with 25 saves and despite showing early signs of fighting the puck, he kept the Capitals in the contest.
“I just found out a few minutes before the game,” Neuvirth said. “I had a text message from Vokey, that he doesn’t feel good, in the morning. I was kind of ready to play, but he took the warmup as the starting goalie so I didn’t really get warmed up. It is what it is as a backup; you’ve got to be ready all the time.”
In the earliest moments of the game, Washington came out hitting and dominating the play despite having to kill off an early penalty. A point shot by John Erskine found its way through traffic in front, but it hit the post to the right of Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist (24 saves). Not long after that chance, New York ratcheted up its physicality and began to create scoring chances.
The Rangers took a 1-0 lead just past 11 minutes into the first when Capitals defensemen Roman Hamrlik and Dmitry Orlov wound up on the same side of the net as Ryan Callahan stood unmarked near the right post. Although he was in the process of falling down when he received the puck, Callahan managed to backhand the puck into the cage before Neuvirth had an opportunity to react.
“They’re a good solid team. Defensively we’ve got to be responsible and play our system,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “We broke down early in the game and they can score — they scored on them.”
Alexander Semin tied the score 6 minutes 31 seconds into the second period with his 23rd point in 24 games when he rifled a one-timer past Lundqvist after a drop pass from Jason Chimera. The Rangers then started to trap Washington in its own end. On one shift, an icing call combined with New York’s effort led to Washington defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson skating shifts of 3:06 and 2:38, respectively.
On another shift driven by their cycle, Ryan McDonagh put the Rangers up, 2-1, as he avoided Troy Brouwer’s sliding attempt to block his shot and fired from the high slot.
“I think we lost second period pretty badly,” said Alex Ovechkin, who finished with five shots on goal but didn’t record one until 16:53 had elapsed in the second. “We was lucky we have only one goal [against] in second period. When we make that kind of mistakes, what [happened] on second goal was my mistake. It was Orly mistake when they started [the play]. That’s unacceptable in that kind of game.”
It was still a one-goal game early in the third period when the Capitals went on a power play. But rather than generating chances, they allowed New York to have an opportunity.
Carlson was deep in the Rangers’ zone, by the goal line in the right-hand corner, leaving Washington more vulnerable at the point when a puck went off Mathieu Perreault’s skate, according to Hunter.
New York broke out on a two-on-one rush with Ovechkin as the lone Capitals player back. Brandon Dubinsky made an easy cross-ice pass to Brandon Prust for a one-timer that gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead at 6:26 of the third period.
“To be down by a goal and get a power play in the third, you at least want to create momentum if you’re not going to score,” Halpern said.
Although Carlson later made it 3-2 when his slap shot redirected off McDonagh and past Lundqvist, Washington was not able to complete the comeback.
Capitals note: Alternate captain Mike Knuble was a healthy scratch for a second consecutive game.