WASHINGTON — Just before warmups Wednesday night, Henrik Lundqvist and Alex Ovechkin exchanged pleasantries. Lundqvist was stretching on the Rangers’ bench. Ovechkin was on the ice, wearing a hoodie. Maybe the two world-class players were bemoaning the NHL’s decision not to participate in the 2018 Olympics. Maybe they were wishing each other luck in the playoffs.
The Capitals were on their way to a second consecutive Presidents’ Cup. Lundqvist, who had missed eight games with a hip muscle strain, simply needed the work in his fifth start since his return.
In his last four games, he had allowed 16 goals. On Wednesday night, he gave up just two in a 2-0 loss at Verizon Center.
As it turned out, backing up a team with six regulars resting due to “bumps and bruises,” according to coach Alain Vig neault, in order to give them a little extra time to heal, Lundqvist responded. He didn’t win his 32nd game, he didn’t earn a shutout or make 40 saves.
But along with a scrappy effort from the replacements and some timely saves, Lundqvist held the Capitals scoreless until late in the second, when guess who, Ovechkin, had the time and space to fire a shot that deflected off Justin Williams in front past Lundqvist.
With 20 seconds left on a power play for the team with the third-best man-advantage stats in the NHL, Ovechkin waited and waited with the puck before snapping a wrist shot that helped provide a 1-0 lead at 14:49.
“Our goaltender has found his game and is looking real sharp,” Vigneault said. “He was under control and focused and was a little unlucky on the first goal, the puck went through Klein and hit Williams, but for the most part he made the timely saves you need.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov split the defense and backhanded a shot past Lundqvist at 5:42 of the third, ending any suspense. After all, it was doubtful that the Rangers, without Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Brady Skjei, Jesper Fast and Nick Holden, were going to score much. But Lundqvist made two more big stops in the next few minutes.
“If our situation was where we needed the points, those [six] guys would be playing right now,” Vigneault said. “Nothing’s going to change for us, so you can give a little more ice time to some guys to make sure that those guys are 100 percent.”
Lundqvist (23 saves) needs to be perhaps 110 percent for the Rangers to advance past the first round. He knows the landscape and the past. He cannot do it alone. “I felt like the first goal was meaningful,” Lundqvist said. “Whether it was deflected or not, it was a hard shot; when you go side to side, it’s hard to be in perfect position. There was a lot of structure in front of me, there’s going to be a couple breakdowns. The last few games, we’ve played smart.
“It was a little different feel [missing six players], you’re going to notice that, there’s no question. I felt like the guys who were here worked really hard. We played the way we planned to play against the best team in the league.”