NEW YORK – The New York Rangers are slowly rounding into the form that helped them run away with the Eastern Conference last season and made them one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season.
After heading to the first intermission down a goal and with nothing to show for barraging Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby with 20 shots, the Rangers never became frustrated and were rewarded with a 2-1 victory Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
It was the Rangers' fourth win in five games and they improved to 8-3-1 since opening the season with two straight regulation losses.
The Rangers found themselves in a 1-0 hole after the first period, but only because of a stellar performance from Holtby. Of his 20 first-period saves, six came against Rick Nash, who suited up despite being a game-time decision because of an undisclosed injury.
A relentless attack culminated with Carl Hagelin scoring his sixth goal of the season – and fifth in the past four games – in the second period and Derek Stepan's game-winner on the power play early in the third period.
"I think we're getting to where we need to be," said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 27 saves and now has a 2.35 goals-against average and .917 save percentage after a shaky first few games. "We're doing a lot of good things. It pays off, so I don't know if you want to call it ‘on a roll' here. It's a good feeling when we play the way we should and it pays off."
Lundqvist credited the specials teams for this recent stretch, and rightfully so. The Rangers are 16-for-16 in killing penalties and 3-for-18 on the power play over the past five games. Scoring on one of every six chances with the man advantage may not sound like much, but it's a marked improvement for a team that started the year 3-for-35 on the power play.
Stepan's power-play goal at 4:25 of the third period looked like something from a unit that has been sizzling all season.
It took the Rangers just seven seconds to score after Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner was sent to the penalty box for tripping Brad Richards. The Rangers controlled the puck off the draw, and that's when the passing clinic commenced. Richards moved the puck to defenseman Michael Del Zotto at the right face-off circle. Del Zotto whipped a pass to Stepan at the far post, and Holtby, who made 38 saves, was unable to make what would've been his most brilliant stop of the night.
"I said from Day One in training camp – we have the offensive talent to make plays and be successful on the power play," said Del Zotto, who was quick to credit a play made by Nash under pressure at the blue line to move the puck to Richards to start the highlight-reel goal. "It's been a bit of a struggle for us all year long. Maybe in a game or two here we've had some good looks. I thought tonight, every power play, we had some quality chances."
"It's been in his hands for the past couple years here," said Rangers coach John Tortorella, referring to Del Zotto's role as power-play quarterback. "Sometimes he's really good at it and sometimes he's really bad at it. Michael makes a great play there tonight and has played really well the past couple games."
The loss snapped a three-game win streak for the Capitals, who sit in last place in the East with 11 points, six points behind the seventh-place Rangers. It's been a struggle for first-year coach Adam Oates, who felt the bad outweighed the good Sunday night.
Defenseman John Carlson put the Capitals ahead 1-0 just 1:19 into the game with a blistering slap shot that would serve as the team's lone offensive bright spot.
"I still think we could have played a lot better," Oates said. "We obviously did some good things but we took too many penalties and it ended up costing us. … They had a lot of shots but a lot of perimeter (shots), not really a lot of grade A chances. So we did some good things, but we made some mistakes."
One of those mistakes was losing coverage in their own zone midway through the second period, when the Caps allowed Hagelin to get position in near the crease for a redirection goal that tied the score at 1-1.
The Capitals had a chance to clear their zone, but Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh held the puck in the zone and played behind the net. Nash eventually worked the puck from the half-wall back to McDonagh at the point, and his ensuing slap pass hit Hagelin's stick and slid into an open net behind Holtby.
While Richards and Marian Gaborik have struggled of late, Hagelin has found instant chemistry working with Nash.
"The more you play with someone, the more you get to know their tendencies and what they like to do," Hagelin said, working linemate Derek Stepan into the answer. "They're two great players and they're easy to play with."
This Rangers' win was similar to the one they had at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 26. They went to the locker room after the first period down 2-0 in that contest, but dominated play and outshot the Leafs 14-3. They never wavered from their game plan, wearing down the Leafs for a 5-2 victory.
While the deficit Thursday wasn't as large and the victory not as nearly as lopsided, the message was the same with the Rangers – just stick with it.
"We had a great first period," Stepan said. "Holtby made some great saves. It's just funny how the game works. I think at times this season we haven't played well and we've been up 2-0. Then we play really, extremely well and we're down 1-0. It's weird how it works, but we were playing the right way and we knew we just had to stick with it."
There was a scary moment early in the second period when Rangers forward Darroll Powe took the brunt of an accidental collision with Capitals forward Matt Hendricks in the neutral zone. They didn't see each other until the last second, and Hendricks ducked under Powe, who flipped to the ice and hit his head. Powe had to be helped off after laying on the ice for about two minutes and did not return. Tortorella had no update on Powe's status after the game.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo