For a night, the Washington Capitals showed how they can assemble a victory fueled by quick pressure on opponents to force turnovers, a willingness throughout the lineup to get involved physically with punishing checks and a defense that bends but doesn't break.
By following that recipe Wednesday night, the Capitals beat the New York Rangers, 4-1, at Verizon Center, besting a team that entered the building as the Eastern Conference leaders on a five-game winning streak. The Capitals got two goals from Alexander Semin and one each from Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer, while Tomas Vokoun finished with 31 saves in his first start since Dec.13.
"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."
Slow starts have been a recent bugaboo for the Capitals, and for early portions of Wednesday's game the trend continued. The Rangers controlled the play early and caused Washington to scramble in its own zone, but ultimately misfired on their best opportunities — including one on the doorstep that Artem Anisimov simply couldn't stuff into a yawning net.
Washington weathered those scoring chances, though, and took the early lead.
Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto coughed up the puck in the neutral zone, letting Johansson leave a drop pass for Jeff Halpern. As Halpern took a shot from the top of the right faceoff circle, Johansson went to the front of the net; when Rangers backup goaltender Martin Biron (19 saves) gave up a rebound the second-year center was there to shoot it into an open net. It gave Washington a 1-0 lead 8:18 into the first period and marked Johansson's 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 New York. Washington killed two penalties, but the Rangers evened the score at 1 with less than three minutes remaining in the period.
New York captain Ryan Callahan blocked a booming slap shot from John Carlson, sending the play back the other way. Sprung on a two-on-one, Brandon Dubinsky took a shot that appeared to catch Vokoun off-guard.
Midway through the second period, Carlson blasted a shot from the point that Brouwer, screening Biron perfectly, redirected into the net to give Washington a 2-1 lead.
Another tough play yielded results for Washington as Ovechkin leveled Brad Richards, causing the veteran center to give up the puck. Nicklas Backstrom gained possession and immediately threaded a pass to Semin, who
made it 3-1 13:02 into the second with his third goal (and fifth point) in the past five games. He added his second goal with 17:25 gone in the third.
"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."