The Rangers have been on some roller coaster ride this season. Their highs have been very high, and their lows very, very low.
Wednesday night, back at Madison Square Garden after their unsuccessful two-game trip to Florida last weekend, the Blueshirts experienced one of their highest highs of the season, as they rode two power-play goals by Artemi Panarin, a more-than-solid performance by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and got goals by Pavel Buchnevich and Brett Howden to put together a convincing 4-1 victory over the top team in the league, the Washington Capitals, who have been their personal nemesis.
The victory by the Rangers ended an 11-game stretch against the Caps, in which Washington had beaten them 10 times and not lost in regulation. The Caps (16-4-4) also entered the game with a nine-game road points streak, in which they had gone 8-0-1.
This season, the Rangers have beaten some of the elite teams in the NHL, with wins over Winnipeg and Tampa Bay at home, Nashville on the road, and now, a Washington team that had just been destroying most opponents in its path.
“I think we might just be keeping it a little bit more simple against those teams,’’ Rangers left wing Chris Kreider said, when asked why the Rangers have beaten so many good teams this season. “They throw the kitchen sink at you and … this is something we talk about a lot: This is what we’re capable of. We did it to Tampa the first time; we did it to Nashville. Now it’s about consistency. And I think it’s coming.
“Now, the big part about playing 82 (games) and being a pro, is stacking those types of games on top of each other.’’
Lundqvist, the 37-year-old Swede, has stacked plenty of good games on top of each other in his 15-year career with the Rangers. The victory was the 454th of his career, which pulled him into a tie for fifth place on the all-time list, with Curtis Joseph.
“It’s an honor to be in that company,’’ Lundqvist said. “There’s so many great goalies. A lot of them have been an inspiration to me, growing up. It’s taken me a little longer here the last two years to get the wins. I’ll just continue to battle here to see how many wins I end up with. It means a lot to me. It really does. Proud feeling, for sure.’’
The Rangers (9-8-2) showed some energy early in the game, with rookie Kaapo Kakko looking especially lively. Ultimately it was Kakko, the 18-year-old, who had missed the two games in Florida because of the flu, who set up the first of Panarin’s goals, which put the Rangers on top, 1-0, 1:14 into the second period.
The notorious Tom Wilson was called for a boarding penalty against Libor Hajek in the final minute of the first period, giving the Rangers the first power play of the game, and Kakko took a pass from Adam Fox and made a cross-ice pass to a wide open Panarin above the left circle. With the Caps’ penalty killers not rotating over to pick him up, Panarin walked to the hash mark and fired a wrist shot past Washington goalie Braden Holtby for his 10th goal of the season, extending his point scoring streak to 12 games.
Panarin’s second, with Dmitry Orlov sitting out a high sticking penalty against Fox, made it 2-0 at 3:57 of the third period, and Pavel Buchnevich, who had been benched for the final few minutes of the second, got himself back in the coaching staff’s good graces when he tapped in Filip Chytil’s return pass into a vacant net behind Holtby just 23 seconds later.
Washington got on the board when Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Lundqvist (30 saves) for his 10th goal of the season, at 7:24. But the Rangers locked down the defensive end, and caught the Caps running around in their own end, and leaving Howden alone in the low slot. Buchnevich passed it out of the right corner to the 21-year-old, who lifted a shot over Holtby’s right shoulder for his third goal of the season at 13:34.
There was one more matter of business to attend to and send the Garden fans home happy: Lemieux took umbrage to a hit by Wilson and fought the Caps’ tough guy with 3:28 remaining. The fight was relatively even, and Lemieux may even have gotten the better of Wilson. He got an extra two minutes for roughing, but neither he nor the Rangers fans seemed to care. Surprisingly, it was Wilson's first fight of the season (he has more than 60 in his career) while Lemieux dropped the gloves for a league-high fourth time.