If you watched the way Brett Howden's evening unfolded on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, in many ways it mirrored the fortunes of the Rangers themselves: Dynamic from the drop of the puck, absorbing every blow the heavy hitters on the Washington Capitals could throw at him, and standing straight and tall in the end, arms raised in celebration, with the Garden crowd roaring right behind him.
The visiting team on Broadway had come to town atop the NHL standings and had been running through everybody on their schedule for a solid month leading into Wednesday's game. But the Rangers met the League-leaders halfway from the start, pulled ahead in the second, then slammed the door in the third, and in doing so won a physical match with a formidable team, a 4-1 victory that moved the Blueshirts to 4-1-1 in their last six games on Garden ice.
Artemi Panarin kept his own roll going by scoring twice, Pavel Buchnevich had a goal and an assist and Howden, up off the mat time and again throughout the night, put the game to bed with a late goal of which Brady Skjei could only say: "That's the Hockey Gods looking down on you right there."
All of it came in support of Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 30 of 31 shots to pick up his 22nd victory against the Capitals - a new Ranger record - and win No. 454 of his NHL career, tying Curtis Joseph in fifth place in League history. Only Evgeny Kuznetsov could get one past him on a screened power-play shot in the third period, which ruined Lundqvist's shutout bid but could do nothing to spoil a night on which the goaltender said, "I think everybody played well."
And they had to, against a Capitals team that came marching into New York leading the NHL with 36 points, 86 goals, a 10-1-1 record in visiting rinks and a 13-1-2 mark in its previous 16 games. Both teams were missing their No. 1 centers to upper-body injuries in this game, Washington without Nicklas Backstrom for the first time this season, the Rangers without Mika Zibanejad for the 10th straight time. But the Rangers held Alex Ovechkin to one shot and a minus-2, and became the first team this season to hold the Capitals under two goals in a game.
"Our hearts were in the right spot, our minds were in the right spot, going into this game," Skjei said. "We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle, and you saw a lot of guys taking hits to make plays, and giving some hits. You know it's going to be physical -- mentally and physically, we were there right from the start."
And when they needed a finishing touch, there front and center, yet again, was Panarin, this time with his first multi-goal game as a Ranger, and also with a high-kick celebration that might turn a few heads over at Radio City Music Hall. The goals -- the go-ahead strike on an early second-period power play, followed by a goal on an early third-period power play that wound up as the game-winner -- made it 12 straight games with a point for Panarin, padding his career high and making it the longest streak by a Ranger in more than a decade, since Scott Gomez's 13-game run in 2007-08.
"Every time this guy's on the ice, it's fun to watch," said David Quinn, who called this victory a "true team effort."
But a major catalyst on both Panarin's tallies was Kaapo Kakko, the 18-year-old rookie who had been knocked out of both the Rangers' games in Florida last week by a flu bug. Kakko had been red-hot prior to falling ill - five goals in seven games, and coming off an OT winner last Tuesday - and if there had been any concern that the flu bout would have slowed him down, he and his linemates, Howden and Brendan Lemieux, dispensed with that notion from their very first shift.
"He was itching to get back in, and we were itching to get him back in," Quinn said, while praising that line as a whole. "He's a really good player and he's made some great strides in the last month. He's feeling a lot of confidence."
Kakko looked completely assured in the one-touch pass he whipped circle-to-circle for Panarin's first power-play goal, 1:14 into the second, after Adam Fox had calmly fended off pressure at the blue line to work the puck his way. And he showed no hesitation in his twisting move from off the goal line on a third-period man-advantage, which slipped off his stickblade but slid straight to Panarin, who buried it for his team-leading 11th goal and 2-0 lead with 16:03 to play.
Buchnevich, with two defenders riding his wake, swept home Filip Chytil's return pass on a rush just 23 seconds after Panarin's second goal, at which point the Rangers had put three pucks behind Braden Holtby, who had come into the game with seven wins in a row and a 10-0-1 record in his past 11.
"A lot of guys made some key plays at the right time," Lundqvist said, "and it gives you so much confidence. It's a mind game sometimes - it's a pretty tight game, and then we made some great plays, and just like that we're up a few goals."
After Kuznetsov walked to the right dot the slice it to 3-1 with 12:36 left, Buchnevich won a puck from a crowd in the right corner and found Howden laying out a picnic all by himself in front of the goal, where he stared down Holtby and beat him with a wrist shot, then raised his arms toward the rafters.
"My eyes got pretty wide there when I was alone in front. It doesn't happen too often," Howden said. "It was a nice play by Buchie to send it over to me - he attracted three guys over to him and I was all alone. It was all him."
"He got hit three times hard, and he kept getting up and didn't come off the ice at all," Skjei said of Howden. "It shows a lot of character and a lot of toughness out of him, and he stepped up with a big goal, too. It was really nice to see that."
Character and toughness ran throughout the Rangers' lineup on Wednesday night, and Lundqvist said "we'll have to bring that with us to Canada" - back-to-back games Friday in Ottawa and Saturday in Montreal, part of a stretch of eight games in a 13-day span around Thanksgiving. So the Rangers will have to savor this victory, and recover from it, quickly.
"It was a good game, a fun game," Skjei said. "And we're going to need some ice bags after this one."