The Washington Capitals keep finding ways to surprise.
After losing their previous three games heading into Saturday night’s matchup with the New York Rangers, who are atop the Metropolitan Division and entered the day third in the NHL, the Capitals were a significant underdog. Their most recent loss — in a shootout against visiting Dallas on Thursday — was a step forward after flat performances at Las Vegas and Arizona ended a five-game Western Conference road trip with a pair of thuds, but the Rangers presented another significant challenge.
After Sonny Milano opened the scoring just 43 seconds after the puck dropped at Capital One Arena, though, Washington rolled to a 4-0 win. Charlie Lindgren made 31 saves — including three on his younger brother Ryan, a Rangers defenseman — to notch his second shutout of the season.
Milano was a healthy scratch Thursday, and he wasted little time in responding after returning to the lineup. His line, with Evgeny Kuznetsov at center and T.J. Oshie on the right wing, started the game and worked the puck deep into the Rangers’ end. As the Capitals cycled around the zone, stretching out the defense, Milano slid unmarked toward the far post. Defenseman Martin Fehervary slipped a pass across the crease, and Milano had a wide-open net behind goalie Igor Shesterkin (25 saves).
“I thought that shift from Kuzy’s line … set the tone for our entire group,” Capitals Coach Spencer Carbery said. “Just right away, from the puck pressure, good decisions, the execution with the puck that we’ve talked extensively about and had discussed earlier in the day, it just got us right into the right mind-set for the entire group.”
Anthony Mantha doubled Washington’s lead 1:43 into the second period, two seconds after a power play expired. Another forward left unmarked by the Rangers, Mantha drove toward the net and tipped a pass from Kuznetsov over Shesterkin’s shoulder.
The goals kept coming. The Capitals’ sluggish scoring has beenwell-documented, but they regularly found openings on Shesterkin — who won the Vezina Trophy in 2022 as the best goalie in the league. Tom Wilson made it 3-0 less than four minutes after Mantha’s tally with a transition goal; he poked the puck away in the defensive zone, raced up the ice on a two-on-one with Alex Ovechkin and fired a wrist shot past Shesterkin.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel added the last goal at 11:52 of the second with a bar-down wrister from the slot — not the kind of goal typically produced by the fourth line, which only emphasizes the confidence the Capitals gathered on offense during this one.
“They’re kind of a benchmark team right now in the league,” Wilson said of the Rangers (18-6-1). “We knew we were going to have to be ready. They play fast. They have a lot of skill. Good balanced lineup. I think we set the tone from a first shift. Kuzy’s line did a good job, and [we] kind of rolled from there.”
The Rangers pushed back at points — midway through the first period, late in the second and for brief stretches of the third — but the offensive outburst gave Washington (13-8-3) the luxury of a cushion. Many of the Capitals’ wins have been characterized by white-knuckle defending and clinging to a narrow lead in the final minutes, but Saturday they were in control from start to finish.
Lindgren improved to 6-2-1 with a .931 save percentage. He didn’t have to be perfect for the Capitals to reach the finish line Saturday, but he was anyway.
Carbery and Aube-Kubel agreed it was Washington’s most complete effort of the season. The Capitals received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd of 18,573 over the final 90 seconds.
“I thought our puck play tonight was as good as it’s been all year long,” Carbery said. “Coming through the neutral zone, we looked way quicker. Our execution, whether it was a bank pass or whether we were beating a guy with speed or whether it was an area play, everything just seemed like it was way cleaner and connected.”
Said Aube-Kubel: “Especially against that team, against our ex-coach [Peter Laviolette], just means a lot.”
The next challenge for the Capitals is to translate the effort they often show against the league’s top teams into every game on the schedule. They’re developing a habit of showing up when the lights are brightest — Lindgren’s other shutout was against the Vegas Golden Knights, the defending Stanley Cup champions — but slipping away when the spotlight fades.
“Starting to learn that,” Carbery said. “And that maybe is something that’s been talked about in the past, of playing to a level and that. Now we need to lose that reputation because you just don’t have that luxury of being able to turn it on and off.”
Note: Oshie returned after missing six games with an upper-body injury. He was activated from injured reserve, and the Capitals sent forward Hendrix Lapierre to Hershey of the American Hockey League. Lapierre had a goal and two assists in 11 games with Washington.