NEW YORK – The Washington Capitals are slowly transforming themselves into a confident bunch, and it's happening just in the nick of time.
After squandering an early two-goal lead against the New York Rangers on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals steadied themselves over the final two periods and squeaked out a 3-2 shootout victory for their third straight win and fourth triumph in five games.
The Capitals put an exclamation point on a four-game road trip that began with a 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a game in which the Capitals left Consol Energy Center without a point, but it was a game players said Sunday that made them start to believe.
"I think we played pretty good against Pittsburgh," said Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, who scored his fifth of the season in regulation and had the deciding goal in the shootout. "We lost that game, but we played better than the result there. Then we played good games against Winnipeg and we won here tonight. You just got to do the same thing on Tuesday (against the New York Islanders).
By picking up a point, the Rangers were able to jump in front of the Carolina Hurricanes for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 33 points. The Capitals have climbed to 10th place with 31 points and are five points behind the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Southeast Division with 16 games remaining.
Starting with the Islanders at home Tuesday, the Capitals' next seven games will come against teams currently outside the top eight in the East. Versatile forward Brooks Laich said he can feel a shift in the mood of the team of late, but it won't mean anything if they let up after this successful road trip.
"We're not going to hurt our arms by patting ourselves on the back by any means," said Laich, who has a goal and an assist in four games since returning from a season-long groin ailment. "We're still on the outside looking in in the playoff picture, but building blocks for sure. I think we're going to take a lot of positives out of these games."
It appeared as though the Capitals were primed to run the Rangers out of the building during the first 10 minutes, when they controlled every aspect of the game and took a 2-0 lead.
Backstrom scored the Capitals' fifth power-play goal in five games when a deflected shot by Alex Ovechkin bounced off his chest while in the crease and landed in the net behind Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The goal marked the 20th time in 31 games the Rangers fell into a 1-0 hole.
The deficit doubled 2:11 later when an unmolested Ovechkin was allowed to stand just above the crease and deflect a shot by defenseman Steve Oleksy that made it 2-0. When asked if he was surprised he was that wide-open, Ovechkin quipped, "I was surprised I tipped the puck to be honest with you."
It appeared the Rangers were in for a long night, but their newly formed fourth line of Darroll Powe, Kris Newbury and Arron Asham cut the lead in half with 5:48 remaining in the period.
A Capitals turnover near the blue line sprung Asham, who was playing his first game in more than a month due to lower-back issues, and Newbury on a 2-on-1 break. Asham elected not to pass and fired a shot from the left wing that beat Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby high to the glove side to make it 2-1.
The goal gave the Rangers life, and the fourth line again came through as Capitals forward Jason Chimera was whistled for interference when he took down Powe. Twenty-four seconds later, defenseman Karl Alzner slashed Rick Nash on a breakaway, giving the Rangers a 5-on-3 power play.
It didn't take long for the Rangers to cash in, as Derek Stepan's quick shot bounced through Holtby's legs to make it 2-2 with 1:57 left in the first period.
"It was very important for us," Asham said of his second goal of the season. "It seemed to get the bench going and started to get the team rolling. They took a couple of penalties on us and our power play got us back in it. It's just too bad we couldn't finish it off."
Over the final 47 minutes, the Capitals were outshot 27-10, but Holtby made several key saves. Rangers forward Marian Gaborik had a breakaway chance in the second period, but Holtby remained patient and stopped his backhander after a hard deke. Holtby was called upon to make five saves in overtime and stopped three of four shots in the shootout.
The Capitals had a chance to let down early in the second period after an extended 5-on-3 power play came up empty and registered just one shot. Ovechkin had two attempts that never made it on net as a sellout crowd that was booing in the first period was whipped into a frenzy after watching their team kill the penalty.
Holtby, who has allowed eight goals in his past five starts, said this was the type of game Capitals were losing during their ghastly first month of the season.
"These are the type of wins we weren't giving ourselves an opportunity to get to earlier on the year," said Holtby, who made 30 saves. "You can tell that's confidence we can play in tight games. We don't let up or start cheating or start trying too hard. So it's good to see."
The struggles on offense continued for the Rangers, who have now scored two goals or fewer in six of their last seven games. They begin a three-game road trip that starts in Philadelphia on Tuesday and continues in Ottawa on Thursday and Montreal on Saturday.
"This time of year, you have to just move on," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "You take the point. Obviously we wanted to two tonight, but we're right back at it against Philly in two days. We played well enough to get the two points, but we just didn't get it in the shootout."
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