Caps coach Barry Trotz picked up the 700th win of his NHL coaching career on Tuesday night in New York as Washington rallied from a slow start for an impressive 4-1 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Marcus Johansson scored twice to reach a single-season career best 21 goals on the season, and Braden Holtby made 29 saves in the Washington nets to earn his 32nd victory of the season.
"It means I've been around a long time," says Trotz, of the significance of becoming just the sixth coach in league history to achieve 700 wins. "I've been blessed to coach a lot of great players and have been with two wonderful organizations and surround myself with really smart people, the assistant coaches and the associate coaches over the years. They're a big part. They do a lot of the work and I've just been blessed to be doing it for as long as I have, and the players responding and playing as well as they have to get those wins."
Video: Trotz talks after a 4-1 win against the Rangers
The Caps looked sluggish and played sloppy in the early minutes of Tuesday's game, and the Rangers were able to grab a 1-0 lead before the game's first television timeout. Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei tapped the puck behind Caps goalie Braden Holtly at the back door, finishing off a tic-tac-toe passing play at the 5:08 mark of the first period.
New York had a couple of first-period power play opportunities with which to add to that lead, but the Caps' penalty killers held firm and kept the deficit at one. The Blueshirts rang iron on one power-play opportunity, and it took a stellar Holtby stop on New York's Mats Zuccarello at even strength to keep the Rangers from expanding that early lead.
"Holts kept us alive there, early," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, who returned to the Washington lineup after a two-game absence because of a lower body injury. "And then the two [penalty kills]; if they pop one or two there, we're fighting an uphill battle. Good job by those guys, and then we just gradually started getting better as the game went on.
"We started moving the puck more efficiently and creating turnovers with pressure. We were able to gain the line on some plays a couple of times and beat some people up ice, and we scored some goals. It was a good, all-around effort after the first 10 or 12 minutes probably."
As the period wore on, Washington began to gain its legs and the Caps were a bit better in the waning minutes of the first frame.
Video: Johansson, Holtby lead Caps to 4-1 win over Rangers
Things were considerably more favorable for the Capitals in the second period. Washington drew its first power play opportunity in the first minute of the middle period, and while the extra man opportunity did not pay dividends, the Caps manufactured the tying tally before the period was halfway over.
Evgeny Kuznetsov fed Dmitry Orlov in neutral ice to start the play, and Orlov and Marcus Johansson passed back and forth after entering New York ice. New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist made a pad stop on Orlov's shot from below the left dot, but the rebound kicked right out to Johansson, who buried it for his 20th goal of the season at 7:28 of the second.
Nearly five minutes later, the Rangers appeared to regain the lead on a Michael Grabner goal following a lost "pop up" in the Washington end. But on the urging of his video coaching crew, Trotz elected to issue a coach's challenge. A lengthy review showed Grabner was offside on the play, and the game stayed square at 1-1.
Grabner's would-be goal was the third would-be goal against the Caps' video coaching crew has wiped off of the board in the last 10 days, all of them coming at critical junctures of those contests.
With 3:34 remaining, the Caps took the lead on a bit of a broken play. Lars Eller fed Niskanen at the point, and the Caps defenseman began carrying toward the cage, right up the middle of the ice. As he reached the slot, the puck rolled off his stick blade, but Brett Connolly was right there to sweep it through Lundqvist's five-hole, giving the Capitals a 2-1 lead and giving Connolly a single-season career high of 13 goals on the season.
Video: Caps players talk after a 4-1 win against the Rangers
"I just got a good bounce," says Connolly. "I was just trying to go to the net. I saw it, I grabbed it, and I turned around and fired it quickly. [Lundqvist] obviously wasn't expecting it, and it was fortunate to see that one go in."
Early in the third, the Caps added to their lead when Johansson struck again on the prettiest tally of the night. Kuznetsov carried into the New York zone down the right side with Johansson driving the center lane. The Caps center slid a sublime backhand feed toward his linemate, and Johansson was able to get just the right amount of it, deftly redirecting it into the far top corner for a 3-1 Washington lead just 75 seconds after the third period got underway.
Washington penalty killers snuffed out a couple more New York power plays in the second, but the Rangers didn't have much going on in the way of offensive threats. When New York finally went shorthanded for a second time late in the third, Caps center Nicklas Backstrom scored on his fellow Swede, bouncing a shot off Skjei's stick and past Lundqvist at 17:57 of the final frame.
"We started real well," says Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. "I really liked our first period. "I thought we competed; thought we executed. In the second period, their top players seemed like they took their gear to another level, and we didn't follow. Our top players didn't execute and compete as hard as theirs. They dominated, without a doubt, the second period. And in the third, we had a couple opportunities, our power play had a couple opportunities, and our guys didn't get it done."
The game marked the Washington debut of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, obtained from St. Louis less than 24 hours earlier. He looked sharp in logging 17:57 of ice time and registering four shots on net, doing so without the benefit of any practice or morning skate time with his new teammates.
"It was tough at first but then I think once we went down 1-0 it felt like I was back in a regular hockey game," says Shattenkirk. "It's amazing what that can do to you and how that can bring a bunch of guys together, and we can all start focusing on the right thing. It was just a fun game to be out there and fun to come back in an away building, in that environment, and get a win."
With Tuesday's triumph over the Rangers, the Caps have now earned at least one win over each of the other 15 Eastern Conference clubs this season.