Zuccarello and Lundqvist lead Rangers past Capitals


Ryan McDonagh is pumped after scoring his third of the season in a bounce back game that saw the Rangers post a big 2-1 home win over the NHL best Capitals on Hockey Day In America. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

It didn’t matter what the circumstances were. Even with the NHL’s leading team having to play the second game of a back-to-back following a shootout loss to Detroit, the Rangers still played the way they needed to. They responded following a tough 4-2 loss to the Islanders by defeating the Capitals 2-1 in a good litmus test at MSG on Hockey Day In America.

Hockey Day In America is definitely a good thing for hockey fans. Ever since it was introduced, it’s been one of NBC’s best promotions. Hockey all day. Even if I hate the early start of 12:30 PM for today’s game, it doesn’t get much better. Following the Rangers’ seventh win in eight, the Red Wings are currently leading the Penguins 1-0 in the second game also on NBC. I used to joke that it stood for Nothing But Crosby. But at this point, considering how astonishing he is just going over 1,000 points in style with three points including an overtime winner from Evgeni Malkin, you can’t discredit him.

While the games go on including some other interesting match-ups including the sizzling Sabres hosting the Blackhawks and the Devils going for a sweep in Brooklyn which would further complicate the playoff picture, the Rangers had probably the best win of the season. Any time you beat the Caps, it’s positive. Even if they went with solid German backup Phillip Grubauer, who was under siege in a lopsided first in which the ice was tilted. The overlooked backup stopped 18 of 19 shots to give his team a chance.

Ryan McDonagh scored the only goal. His third of the season was a beauty. After taking a pass from Rick Nash, he dangled out of traffic and went forehand top shelf for a 1-0 lead at 7:49. It was the Ranger captain’s first goal since Dec. 23. More importantly, he bounced back in a big way from an awful game. It was his costly turnover along with the other four skaters who puck watched as John Tavares set up Nikolay Kulemin’s shorthanded winner on a two-on-five. A play which left coach Alain Vigneault at a loss for words.

McDonagh knew he had to be better with Alexander Ovechkin, who along with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are one of the toughest lines to defend. He and partner Dan Girardi were up to the challenge. In 27 shifts, McDonagh logged a team high 23:33 with a goal, four shots, six attempts and five blocked shots. Girardi took 28 shifts blocking four shots in 20:48. Both defenseman finished plus-one on for McDonagh’s third goal. They also were out plenty in crunch time not giving the Ovechkin line much time or space.

Following a flat first in which they were out-shot 19-6, the Caps turned the tables with a better second. They had the better of the play with an 11-4 edge in shots and the period’s only goal. Of course, it came off the stick of Ovechkin, whose power play goal from his spot on the left side took a favorable hop off Nick Holden past Henrik Lundqvist tying the score with 2:36 left.

Earlier in the contest, Mika Zibanejad had a power play goal wiped out by a successful challenge from Washington coach Barry Trotz for offside. A quick review determined that the play was offside. But the replays NBC showed weren’t the issue which befuddled everyone. It turned out that McDonagh was offside initially about 15 seconds prior to Zibanejad scoring. So, they got it right. But it was too bad for Zibanejad because he thought he had his first goal in 13 games. He did play a key role later in the victory.

With a tight game still knotted at one, the third was the kind you’d expect from these close rivals. Lundqvist held off a strong Caps push by making key saves. His teammates let him see the shots which were mostly from the perimeter. Even on an extended shift where the Caps dangerous top line buzzed, they were unable to get inside, resulting in an easy glove save by Lundqvist to stop play. One of his best saves came on John Carlson when he easily gloved his shot.

The difference came when Mats Zuccarello was able to get free in the slot and score the game-winner with 11:23 remaining. The winning play was due to a clean face-off win by Zibanejad, who got the puck to Chris Kreider. Kreider drew defenders down low and made a good pass to an open Zuccarello, who managed to play it perfectly off his skate and in one motion fired his 12th past Grubauer to chants of, “Zuuuuuccccc!” from the crowd.

Washington pulled Grubauer with 1:21 left with the puck deep in the Rangers zone. For the most part, the defense did a good job. They didn’t allow Ovechkin to get any set ups from the point. However, it would come down to a Backstrom pass down low for an open Marcus Johansson. He got two tries but was turned away by a stellar Lundqvist, who made the second stop to get a whistle with less than a minute to play.

With the crowd cheering loudly, the Rangers killed off the final 55 seconds without a problem to earn the win. One that demonstrated how good this team can be when it wants to be.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Mats Zuccarello, NYR (game-winner with 11:23 left for his 12th of season from Kreider and Zibanejad)

2nd Star-Phillip Grubauer, WSH (28 saves including 18/19 in 1st)

1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (31 saves including 11/11 in 3rd with the two clutch stops on Johansson to preserve the win)

Notes: Kevin Klein returned to the lineup along with Pavel Buchnevich. Klein was back in for Adam Clendening while Buchnevich replaced Matt Puempel. In 19 shifts, Klein went plus-one with two hits and a shot in 14:15 all at even strength. Buchnevich took 16 shifts receiving 10:46 including 1:33 on the power play finishing with three shots while rejoining Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast on the fourth line. … Jimmy Vesey had another strong game with three shots in five attempts over 13:59 (16 shifts). He’s been the most dangerous player on a line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. Both of who haven’t scored much over the past month. Stepan picked up an assist on McDonagh’s tally. Stepan has three assists in the last four games but is without a goal over the last 13 since potting two on 1/17 versus Dallas. Ironically, the same game Zibanejad last scored. … With a power play goal, Ovechkin is up to 27 for the season. He has 552 goals for his career in 897 games.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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