NEW YORK — Many times this season, scoring just once or twice has been enough for the Washington Capitals. But they knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long, and against the New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, their scoring woes continued — while their four-game point streak did not.
Though the Capitals struck first, the Rangers poured in five unanswered goals to prevail, 5-1. In the Capitals’ first game since Saturday, a shootout loss at home to Tampa Bay, Anthony Mantha had their lone goal and goaltender Darcy Kuemper made 26 saves.
“We have to start scoring five-on-five if you’re going to be a quality team in this league,” Coach Spencer Carbery said. “We can defend. We can check. We’re detailed. We’re organized. But you’ve got to score. You have to find scoring. We just don’t have that right now.”
Washington flew to New York early Wednesday morning. During the NHL’s Christmas break, teams are prohibited from having any activities — including traveling to their first game after the time off — from Dec. 24 to 26, which meant the Capitals had an early wake-up call to get on a plane while the Rangers went through a normal game-day morning at home. Both teams looked rusty, but the Capitals (17-10-5) kept pace in the first period despite having to kill an early penalty when defenseman John Carlson was boxed for hooking.
Mantha opened the scoring at 4:12 of the second period with his fourth goal in the past three games; on the rush, he picked a corner above Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin (26 saves). In 28 games, Mantha has equaled his total of 11 goals from last season, which he needed 67 games to score. He is second on the team in goals behind center Dylan Strome (13).
The Rangers (24-8-1) wasted little time responding, and in a 5:45 stretch of the period New York pulled away. K’Andre Miller tied the score at 7:03, Artemi Panarin scored the go-ahead goal on the power play at 12:08, and Braden Schneider made it 3-1 just 40 seconds later on a long-range shot that fooled Kuemper through traffic.
“I think we were kind of taking it to them,” Capitals winger Tom Wilson said. “The game looked pretty good from our end. We get a big goal. They get one, and then those next few minutes there are big. When their building kind of wakes up and they get feeling good about their game, it’s a tough team to chase from behind. That’s not the ideal game plan. No excuses. It was a long day, but we’ve got to find ways to manage those parts of games a little bit better.”
Washington routed the Rangers the previous time the teams met, turning in what Carbery termed his team’s most complete effort of the season in a 4-0 home win Dec. 9. The second time around, the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers gave the Capitals the pushback they expected earlier this month — and Washington couldn’t keep up.
It wasn’t as comprehensive of an effort as the Capitals showed in the teams’ first meeting, but once the Rangers got rolling, they didn’t look back. Washington had a few opportunities to get back in the game — including several shots that hit the post and a chance for rookie Ivan Miroshnichenko that required a highlight-reel save by Shesterkin — but the Rangers’ waves of pressure kept Washington from building much momentum.
“They’re one of the best teams in the league right now,” Wilson said. “Any team at home, when they get up a couple goals, it’s not ideal. You’ve got to start taking chances on the other side of the puck. You’ve got to start pushing a little bit, and they’re good in transition. They can make you pay when the puck’s not bouncing your way.”
On the shift after Miroshnichenko was stopped by Shesterkin, Miller scored again to give New York a three-goal lead with 13:06 to play. The Capitals had scored four or more goals in just nine of their 31 games entering Wednesday, and their already-long odds of staging a comeback decreased when Alexis Lafrenière scored just over five minutes later; the Capitals had scored five or more goals just twice.
Seeking a late spark, Carbery shifted Alex Ovechkin to skate with Miroshnichenko and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and the all-Russian line created several scoring chances. But as has been the case so often for the Capitals this season, those scoring chances didn’t produce a goal as they continue to be hamstrung by their limited offensive production.
“It makes it really, really challenging when you’re held to one, two goals every night,” Carbery said. “Similar tonight. Did some really good things early in that game, and then put ourselves behind the eight-ball. For our group, it’s really, really challenging when we get down in games.”