(l. to r.) Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, Jesper Fast and Dan Girardi celebrate Stepan’s game-winner.
WASHINGTON — No Henrik Lundqvist. No Rick Nash. No way the Rangers will let the NHL-leading Capitals forget which franchise has eliminated them from the playoffs in three of the last four years and intends to stand in the way again of Washington’s quest for its first-ever Stanley Cup in late April.
The Blueshirts blistered into the Verizon Center Friday night and rode major nights from Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Keith Yandle and Antti Raanta to make a statement with an impressive, full-team 3-2 win over the Caps: Remember us?
“If we’re gonna get where we want to in the playoffs this year, we’re gonna probably have to go through them,” alternate captain Dan Girardi (assist) said after rendering the great Alex Ovechkin a non-factor with just one shot on the rock-solid Raanta (32 saves). “So it’s good to get the last win here against these guys and have a good feeling. Maybe we see them, maybe we don’t, but if we do meet up along the way here, we’ve got a feeling in this room that we can beat them.”
The Rangers (38-21-6, 82 points) don’t expect to catch the Capitals (47-13-4, 98 points) in the Metropolitan Division with just 17 regular-season games remaining. But they know if they protect the two-seed, respective first-round victories will rekindle a bitter postseason rivalry in which the Rangers have won three straight series in seven nail-biting games apiece by a combined score of 44-37.
Jesper Fast celebrates his first-period goal with teammates during Rangers’ win over the Capitals.
Derek Stepan’s game-winning goal 17 seconds into the third period off the skate of Brooks Orpik and McDonagh’s second assist, therefore, had a special feeling off the stick of last spring’s Game 7 hero.
The Rangers improved to 2-2-1 in the season series and showed guts on the second night of a back-to-back following Thursday night’s 4-1 loss in Pittsburgh. But their committed victory also announced the end of blowout Caps wins — 7-3 at the Garden Dec. 20 and 5-2 here at Verizon Center on Jan. 17 — and reminded that leading Vezina Trophy candidate Washington goalie Braden Holtby (20 saves) still hasn’t proven himself in the spring against the Boys in Blue.
“I think they’ve kind of had our number this year, so it’s good in our last meeting in a sense to say, ‘Hey, we’re playing better hockey now than we were when we first played each other,” said Stepan (goal, assist). “And maybe in a sense it kind of says: ‘We haven’t given you our best yet.’”
Raanta was great in his third straight win since a discouraging Feb. 12 OT loss to the Kings, after which the Rangers’ backup sounded like he never wanted to play another hockey game again. He made 11 third-period saves for a clean final frame, shutting the door after Caps forward Jay Beagle (10:58) and T.J. Oshie (19:20, power play) had scored in the second period to erase a 2-0 Rangers lead.
Capitals center Jay Beagle scores on Rangers goalie Antti Raanta.
Raanta started because Lundqvist (neck spasms, day-to-day) was unavailable due to Thursday’s injury on a collision with McDonagh. Magnus Hellberg was recalled on emergency from the AHL to back up. The King attended the game in a finely tailored suit alongside Nash (left leg bone bruise), who missed his 18th straight game but skated alone for a second straight day and expects to return in mid-March.
Beagle’s goal was controversial, awarded on review despite the absence of a replay that showed the puck across the goal line. But the Rangers persisted with the same determination they had shown in the first period on goals by Jesper Fast (5:47) and the forceful Yandle (16:37, power play), who got the Broadway Hat.
Defenseman Marc Staal (flu) — the fourth Ranger with the flu in two weeks who sat out Thursday’s loss in Pittsburgh — gutted out 14:33 of ice time despite flying commercial to D.C. on to quarantine him from the team and let him sleep off a difficult illness.
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