NEW YORK – When the Madison Square Garden spokesman said there was only a minute left in the first period, the New York Rangers fans finally had something to cheer about – though sarcastically.
After a dominant first-half with four goals, the Washington Capitals held a 4-2 win over the Rangers in the final 40 minutes on Saturday night, Washington's fourth win in a row and a third straight win in three games. Goalkeeper Philipp Grubauer finished the game with 28 saves.
The Capitals have pushed their lead in the Metropolitan Division to five points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and although Washington only denied three teams from the playoff race, the club has already won eight games with the postseason just two weeks away.
"It was a really good trip for us," said defender Matt Niskanen. "None of the teams is in the playoff picture, but it does not make it easy, I thought we had a professional trip and done the job."
The capitals will not have the same free reign in the playoffs as in the first 20 minutes on Monday night, but Washington has rightly exploited the weaker competition. The first goal came less than three minutes after the game, when four blue jerseys center surrounded Nicklas Backstrom on a rush to the offensive zone. Backstrom threaded the puck through three sticks and over to T.J. Oshie on the right, and Oshie beat goalkeeper Alexandar Georgiev for his sixth goal in the last seven games. Oshie's increased production is a relief to the captains as he had a scoreless drought with 19 games before the final stretch.
Then, at 5:13, Niskanen strangely found himself under the Anspielkreisen, all alone in front of the net. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov shot him a puck, and Niskanen dangled in front of Georgiev before leaving the game in his last six games against his third goal. Niskanen's seven goals this season are the most he has achieved since his 2013/14 season with Pittsburgh, when he had a career-high 10 score.
"Kuzy did a piece of a game, I had almost too much time that I did not know what to do," Niskanen said. "I just try to be involved, when I'm here to get a chance, I do my best to make it, but I focus on being in position to get involved, if it happens, it happens
A power play goal by Alex Ovechkin 8:54 in the first period, Washington's third goal after six shots, marked the end of Georgiev's night when he was replaced by Ondrej Pavelec on the net. Ovechkin had expanded his league lead to 45 goals and joined Hall of Fame Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky as the only NHL players with nine 45-goal seasons in their careers.
"We were able to get their goalkeeper out of the game and obviously set up a lead," said coach Barry Trotz. "Then we stopped playing and vied."
Kuznetsov scored the first goal with a close goal – his first shorthanded point since his first NHL goal in 2014 – to score four Washington goals in the team's first 12 shots. But perhaps the most telling story of how the game went was Kuznetsov, who tried a lacrosse-style shot at the beginning of the second period. He dug the blade of his stick into the puck behind the net to pick it up and try to float it into the net as he came around the cage. He scored no goal, but it was so breathtaking that he even tried it in an NHL game that showed several repetitions of the efforts in the garden.
But it was also a symbol of how some players might have seen the last two periods. After 4-0, the Capitals made the mistake of sitting back for the rest of the game, and of course the Rangers responded with an offensive kick. Overshadowed by his team's strong offensive in the first half, Grubauer shone and finished 15 of 16 shots in the second half, many coming from near range. Lias Andersson's first NHL goal in his first game cut Washington's lead over three. Mats Zuccarello added another goal in the third half, but the Rangers failed to reach the four points in the first half.
"We won a time and that was all," said Oshie. "Grubi won the others for us."
After goalkeeper Braden Holtby was injured in the last two games due to a knee injury, Grubauer made a third start in a row on Monday, even with Holtby. And although Def contrasted his goalkeepers throughout the season, Grubauer made another strong argument to start the playoffs' first game. After recording his third shutout of the season on Thursday night in Detroit, he was rewarded for four goals in Montreal on Saturday before coming up with two goals on Monday.
It helped his teammates to give him a comfortable cushion from the start.
"He has been our MVP here for the last one and a half months, and it's great," Oshie said. "It's not great that we did so many great parades tonight, so I think we need to clean that up."