After a three-day Christmas break, backup goaltender Ondrej Pavelec gave the Rangers another present.
In a battle of the backups, he was unbeatable. He made 30 saves through overtime of a scoreless game and then he stopped both shootout attempts — by T.J. Oshie and Alex Ovechkin — as the Rangers beat the Capitals, 1-0, on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Mats Zuccarello, who entered 21-for-42 in his career in shootouts, scored on a slow-motion backhander for the first goal and Mika Zibanejad sniped a high shot over Philipp Grubauer’s glove on the Rangers’ second attempt.
Pavelec stopped Ovechkin on the Caps’ second attempt to seal the win as the Rangers snapped a two-game skid.
With Ovechkin bearing down on him in the shootout, Pavelec said he was only thinking “that I have to make the save. That’s pretty much all you can do, just focus on you. To be honest, I had no idea what he was going to do. He has some moves and he can shoot the puck really well. I was just trying to be patient and squared. Actually, I didn’t make the save, he missed the net.”
But Pavelec did record his first shutout as a Ranger. He signed a one-year deal as a free agent last summer to replace Antti Raanta.
It was the third consecutive stellar performance for Pavelec, who had last played Dec. 11 against Dallas, making 44 saves in a 2-1 shootout loss, then watched Henrik Lundqvist play six in a row. He had made at least 40 saves in his last two appearances (85 saves on 89 shots).
Pavelec said: “It wasn’t easy for me, not at all, after the three-days break, what I was going to see, but surprisingly I felt really good.”
Grubauer had made 36 saves through regulation.
The Rangers began the game with a strong shift by the first line and six shots on Grubauer in the first four minutes. The Blueshirts skated well, with forwards coming back to their zone, sticking away passes to prevent good scoring chances on Pavelec. But the attack slowed, and the closest that any Rangers came to a goal was when Rick Nash, in the right circle, rang the near post with 4:34 left.
No penalties were called in the first period, but two were called back-to-back in the second, when Chris Kreider did not return to the game. The team did not give a reason.
With 9:47 left, Brendan Smith was sent off for cross-checking. After Pavelec made several stops, the Rangers held the Caps off, and as time expired, Smith hopped out of the box and lugged the puck into the Capitals zone, drawing a holding penalty on Lars Eller, but the Blueshirts couldn’t find the net. At 15:21, Nash was whistled for interference, but the Rangers stymied that and the Caps almost scored on an odd-man rush near the end with Michael Grabner’s snap shot bouncing off Grubauer.
They finished with just eight shots in the middle 20 minutes. Grubauer had stopped all 18 shots through 40 minutes.
In the third period, with each goalie pitching a shutout, the Rangers had eight shots on goal, including a redirection and rebound and two tries by Zuccarello, in the first four minutes.
With 11:16 left in regulation, Grubauer made his best save of the night, denying Zibanejad’s rebound try off Nash’s shot at the left post with his blocker.
Wednesday morning, Alain Vigneault had made wholesale changes to his lineup with the aim of “catching everybody’s attention” following a shootout loss to the Devils and a regulation loss to the Maple Leafs at home. Vigneault chose to give Pavelec his sixth start and that, he said, allowed Lundqvist time to relax during the holiday hiatus and not think about preparing for the game.
“This was probably the best thing for Hank . . . practice today, practice tomorrow, and be ready for Detroit, he said.” The Rangers visit the Red Wings on Friday night.
Pavelec was told before the break that he would start, Vigneault said, “to make sure than he would come here today ready to play.”