NEW YORK -- This is what the New York Rangers were hoping for when they acquired an Olympic gold-medalist and five-time All-Star in the summer of 2012.
Rick Nash scored two goals, including his fourth game-winner in the past six games, to give the Rangers a 4-1 win against the Washington Capitals on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. With the victory, New York is 7-1-1 in its past nine games.
After scoring seven goals in his first 26 games this season, Nash has seven in his past eight games, marking one of his hottest stretches since coming to New York from the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 23, 2012.
"Pucks are going in right now. Sometimes they don't go in and you struggle," Nash said. "Still getting lots of opportunities when they weren't [going in]. Right now they're just going in."
Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan also scored for New York (27-21-3) and Henrik Lundqvist made 24 saves.
Alex Ovechkin scored his 35th goal of the season for Washington (22-19-8); Philipp Grubauer stopped five of eight shots before Braden Holtby made 17 saves in relief.
It was a glaring defensive miscue by the Capitals that allowed Nash to open the scoring 70 seconds into the game. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov's clearing attempt went right to Nash near the blue line. He then sped in from the left wing before lifting a quick backhand past Grubauer's outstretched glove on the Rangers' first shot.
"I think I was kind of disguised by [Stepan]. I don’t think he [Orlov] saw me until the last second," Nash said. "I just kind of picked it, the timing was perfect."
The Canadian Olympian only needed one more shot to double his output and take over the team lead in goals with his 14th of the season.
Karl Alzner was called for hooking at 15:47, 23 seconds after Martin Erat was whistled for the same penalty, giving the Rangers a 5-on-3 advantage. Cradling the puck at the right faceoff circle, Nash's quick shot squeezed between Grubauer's legs to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead 29 seconds into their two-man advantage. Nash's second of the evening was a goal Grubauer admitted he would have liked to have back.
"I know it was 5-on-3, but it was a bad goal; from the side, five-hole," Grubauer said. "It's not the way I wanted it to go, but it's part of the job. A player gets benched, a goalie gets pulled. It's my job to stop the puck, I didn't stop it today. I've got to work on that and move on."
Lundqvist had to be sharp early to maintain New York's lead, especially when Ovechkin's forecheck caused a defensive-zone giveaway by Dan Girardi with 12:14 remaining in the first. Nicklas Backstrom took the turnover and fed Marcus Johansson, who then found Mike Green wide open at the point. Green's hard wrist shot was deflected out of play by Lundqvist, who held the fort early as Washington outshot the Rangers 8-3 in the opening 11:03.
"Starts are important. If you can jump out and start the right way and then get the momentum, then you set the tone for the rest of the game," Lundqvist said. "With some big goals, I think everybody feels it. You feel it in the building."
Alzner had barely left the penalty box after Nash's second goal when Stepan added to New York's lead. The Rangers center fired a wrister from the point that went through a maze of players and beat Grubauer to the glove side with 2:11 remaining in the first. Stepan's ninth gave New York a 3-0 lead, prompting Washington coach Adam Oates to pull Grubauer in favor of Holtby for the second straight game.
Down 4-1, Washington thought they had reduced New York's lead playing 4-on-4 with 9:39 left in the second. Green made a nice move to elude Brad Richards at the point before beating Lundqvist high to the glove side. But Erat was whistled for interference, giving New York 61 seconds of 4-on-3 play. The Rangers wouldn't score on the ensuing man advantage. But they enjoyed plenty of time on the power play, as Erat took three of Washington's six minors through 40 minutes.
"We took three penalties in the offensive zone. That can't happen," Washington coach Adam Oates' said. "We shot ourselves in the foot. A bad turnover for the first goal. The first shot is in the net so you're fighting an uphill battle from the beginning."
Until then, the only sign of hope for the Capitals had been on a 5-on-3 that came after Carl Hagelin was called for slashing 30 seconds into the second as Chris Kreider served a slashing minor he took with 34 seconds left in the opening period. Taking a cross-ice pass from Green, Ovechkin wired a slap shot over Lundqvist's right shoulder 59 seconds into the second for his League-leading 35th goal.
The Rangers' penalty kill quickly responded. Coming down the left wing, Dominic Moore fired a slap shot that was kicked away by Holtby's left pad, but Callahan outmuscled Orlov to the net and deposited his ninth of the season shorthanded at 2:25. The Rangers captain gave New York a 4-1 lead five seconds before Hagelin's penalty expired and 86 seconds after Washington's captain got his team on the board.
"We always look for opportunities like that. We're not going on the PK and thinking we're going to score a goal, by any means," Callahan said. "I feel like, with the guys we have killing and the speed we have on our killers, if the opportunity presents itself we're going to go for it."