The game came down to a battle between countrymen both vying for the extra point that would boost their respective teams in the standings and that could very well end up being the deciding factor between a playoff berth and ending their season at the end of April. And it was Nicklas Backstrom who bested Henrik Lundqvist in the fourth round of the shootout Sunday night at Madison Square Garden to lift the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers.
Lundqvist was able to stop Matt Hendricks and Mike Ribeiro’s attempts in the first and third round of the shootout, but could not figure out a way to stop the “Great Eight” Alexander Ovechkin or Backstrom on the game-winner. Braden Holtby, who played a solid and strong game for the Caps, didn’t falter in the shootout, stopping both Rick Nash and Brad Richards’ attempts, and gleefully watching the puck sail over his head as Ryan Callahan fired a shot a little too high. The only Ranger able to trip up Holtby was Derek Stepan, who has honed his skills and rounded out his game to be one of the best Rangers on the ice each night.
Aside from a shootout, which had fans on the edge of their seats, the game’s only true action came in the first period where a total of four goals were scored. Once again, the Rangers’ opponent was able to get on the board first, which has been a trend that has plagued the team over this shortened season and something they need to fix immediately. Of course any athlete would tell you, they would rather have their team score the last goal rather than the first, but the first goal, for many teams, can deflate or create momentum. This is exactly what happened to the Rangers after Backstrom redirected Ovechkin’s shot off his chest while the Caps were on the power play and Anton Stralman was serving two minutes in the box for holding.
“I think we get paralyzed after the power play goal,” said Rangers Coach John Tortorella. “Why? I don’t know that is what we were talking about on the bench. We have to move by it and just play.”
The residual effects of the goal continued a bit too long, as less than two minutes later, Ovi came through again. This time he redirected Steve Oleksy’s shot, which stunned Lundqvist and found its way to the back of the net.
That’s when it began to pour in the Garden. Fans rained down boos on the Blueshirts, each individual a coach in their own right yelling out demands, telling the Rangers how to play and advising the players on how, in the classiest words, to “stop sucking.” It was not the start the Rangers needed after a deflating loss against the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, again in front of a home crowd, but it was the one they had. A major part of the team’s identity over the past season or so has been its ability to power through and claw back from a deficit. They just needed a spark to ignite the fire and that spark came in the form of Arron Asham. Asham, who returned to the lineup after missing about 15 games due to a back injury, proved to be one of the best players on the ice last night. The entire fourth line, which had a new look of Darroll Powe and Kris Newbury, who was called up from the Connecticut Whale, had some of the best opportunities in the game. They fourth liners gelled really well together and were able to sustain a powerful forecheck for most of their shifts, so it was only fitting that Asham cut the Caps’ lead in half and breathed life into the lackluster audience. Newbury started the play, poke checking the puck out of the Rangers’ zone and breaking out to create a 2-on-1 situation with Karl Alzner trying to take away the passing lane while at the same time defending his goalie from an oncoming rush. Asham, with no hesitation, blasted a shot from the wing and beat Holtby top shelf.
“It’s always nice when the fourth line chips in a goal,” said Asham, “It seemed like we helped get the wheels back on the track.”
Throughout the latter periods, both teams had chances, but the goalies stood up tall, making some spectacular saves, including a header by Lundqvist that would have even impressed the likes of David Beckham. It only seemed fitting that the game would be decided by the two players who played the most consistent throughout, Lundqvist and Holtby.
Always one to blame himself for the team’s loss, Lundqvist kept reiterating that he needs to be better, because 2-for-4 save percentage on the shootout just won’t cut it. The truth is, Lundqvist has and usually does give the Rangers a fighting chance. It is a collective effort, and when the offense slumps, which is something the team is currently struggling with, Lundqvist picks up the slack by elevating his game and preventing things from becoming too ugly. The Rangers, as a team and as individuals, need to fix the kinks in their game. Lines need to gel, the power play must produce more, and defensively the team needs to lock it up. While they will take any point they can get, which was stated by multiple players in the locker room, along with Tortorella, they must find a way to string more wins together. With the season dwindling down rapidly there isn’t much room for error.
Capitals forward Brooks Laich returned to the lineup after missing 28 games with a groin injury… The Rangers’ J.T. Miller was out of the lineup after injuring his hand on Thursday night against the Panthers.