NEW YORK -- Though the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals did their best to downplay the importance of their game at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, what happened on the ice suggested otherwise.
Already immersed in a rivalry intensified by four Stanley Cup Playoff series in the past six seasons, the Rangers and Capitals have been jockeying for position in the Metropolitan Division.
Each team has flourished in December. Prior to the game Tuesday, Washington earned a point in nine straight games (7-0-2) dating to Dec. 4. New York had won six straight.
Their first of four games this season was as fierce as expected, with the Rangers surviving a third-period rally from the Capitals in a 4-2 victory.
"It was perfect," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "They came out with everything they had [in the third period]. It's the last game before the break. We knew they were going to push it. It was good for us, it got really intense."
Rick Nash had a hat trick, Martin St. Louis had a goal and Derick Brassard had a career-best three assists for the Rangers (18-10-4), who overtook the Capitals for third place in the division. Lundqvist made 19 of his 30 saves in the third period.
"Henrik stood tall for us," Rangers forward Derek Stepan said. "I think [coach Alain Vigneault] said it the other day: You don't go anywhere without good goaltending. Our goaltending has been phenomenal."
"I thought for the most part, there was no quit in us," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "I really liked our effort. I liked our determination. … I thought that they came out and we were able to survive the first period because I think they were pretty focused on us. Second period, our lack of execution got us a little frustrated, and third period, I thought we played very, very well and dominated the period."
The Capitals, who defeated the Ottawa Senators 2-1 on Monday, were lethargic to begin the game and the Rangers quickly pounced.
Early in the first period, Nash rumbled up the center of the ice, leaving the puck for Brassard at the right point. Nash's center-lane drive drew defenseman John Carlson's attention and ultimately provided New York with a 1-0 lead at 3:32 when Mats Zuccarello's shot grazed Nash's leg and changed direction.
"That was just a lucky one," Nash said. "[Zuccarello] just put it on net and I kind of took my man to the net. Those are sometimes the best ones to get."
With the Rangers on the power play in the opening minute of the second period, defenseman Dan Boyle wound up from inside the blue line before sending a slap pass to St. Louis near the bottom of the right circle. Holtby committed to what he thought would be Boyle's shot, which allowed St. Louis to beat him from a sharp angle at 1:03. It was Boyle's first assist in 16 games.
"You are trying to get yourself open and there are definitely some comfortable spots that you can go back to, but you can't just be married to it," St. Louis said. "You have to play the game and sometimes you go inside to the pole. Tonight I was able to get a couple looks from that spot and that's a comfortable spot."
The Capitals, who had 11 shots on goal through two periods, began the third with vigor, taking nine shots in the first 1:13. Four came in rapid succession during a goal-mouth scramble, but Lundqvist turned each one aside before freezing the puck.
"When the game was on the line, I thought Lundqvist was really good for them," Trotz said. "We came out with some really good looks right off the bat. We had a couple long shifts where he had to be pretty spectacular."
Nash's second goal of the game and 22nd of the season at 5:12, a snap shot on the rush, gave the Rangers breathing room, but Kuznetsov responded 41 seconds later on a nearly identical play.
The Capitals' second line then hemmed in the Rangers in New York's zone for a lengthy period of time, drawing a hooking penalty on Matt Hunwick. On the power play, Ovechkin settled and fired a shot from the left circle that clipped the far post on its way into the net.
Washington preserved momentum, firing shot after shot toward Lundqvist until Nicklas Backstrom received a double minor for high-sticking and Jason Chimera committed a faceoff violation to give New York a two-minute, two-man advantage.
Nash capped the hat trick, his first as a member of the Rangers, at 16:12 when his shot from the slot on the power play hit the right post, bounced off Holtby's glove and into the net.
"They were coming," St. Louis said. "You go up 3-0, you know they are going to throw everything at you. They are taking chances. … You have to bend, not break. It's a big power-play opportunity here to seal the game and we did."
"We feel good about ourselves right now," Vigneault said. "We are going on Christmas break, we've put seven wins together. We are going to enjoy the next three days."