The Rangers didn’t deny it. They were well aware of the standings before facing the Capitals, the team with the most points in the NHL, on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
“You know they’re up there,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 31 saves in a 2-1 win that had a postseason feel and sound goaltending at both ends. “I think going into the game, we felt like this was a good test at the right time for us.”
Well, the Rangers (38-19-1, 77 points) passed the exam, with the edge being Mats Zuccarello’s third-period goal, a play that began with a left-circle faceoff in the Capitals’ zone. Center Mika Zibanejad pushed the puck forward to the boards and seemed to surprise the Capitals.
“Real good play,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “Kreids [Chris Kreider] jumped through and made a nice pass to Zukie.”
From between the circles, Zuccarello rapidly sent a low wrister that hit the corner past Philipp Grubauer at 8:47. It was the Norwegian winger’s third goal in the last eight games.
Zuccarello shrugged off the suggestion that the play was planned. “Not really,” he said. “If he loses it, I just try to be in position. Kreids got it, he’s quick and strong, so a good play by him . . . It was almost like a playoff atmosphere out there. Our defense and Hank were really good.”
The Capitals (39-12-7, 85 points) lost a 3-2 shootout at Detroit Saturday afternoon after returning from a five-day bye. They didn’t have their legs in the first period, forcing Grubauer to make 19 saves, but later came on strong.
The Rangers had two days to shake off Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Islanders that snapped a six-game winning streak.
“It felt like we took advantage of that in the first,” Lundqvist said. “We set the tone and could have been up a couple goals. You need an ‘A’ performance to beat this team, and I thought we got that from everyone.”
Yet this one wasn’t decided until the final minute, when Lundqvist made two pad stops on Marcus Johansson at the doorstep after Grubauer was pulled for an extra attacker.
Ryan McDonagh put the Rangers ahead at 7:49 of the first period. The captain grabbed a rebound of Rick Nash’s shot in front, backed off for a better shooting position and snapped in a top-shelf wrister for his third goal.
It appeared that Zibanejad had scored with the Caps’ Brooks Orpik in the box when his wrister from the lower left circle on a rebound flew past a reaching Grubauer at 16:45. Capitals coach Barry Trotz argued that McDonagh was offside entering the zone. A review confirmed the challenge and the goal was disallowed. “It was the right call,” Vigneault said.
In the second, Lundqvist fought off early power-play chances from Brett Connolly and Tom Wilson, the latter with a lightning-quick right skate save. With Kreider off for interference, Alex Ovechkin tied the score from his favorite power-play spot, the left circle. A wrister for his 27th goal grazed defenseman Nick Holden and went past Lundqvist’s glove side at 17:24.
“We just knew we had to keep at it,” the Rangers’ Marc Staal said. “They had a good push in the second, and I thought we responded in the third. We were able to grind one out against a really good team.”