Igor Shesterkin was his usual brilliant self, the top line played like a formidable top line and Ryan Reaves made his presence felt in a big way as the Rangers scored an impressive 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals last night at the Garden.
Shesterkin made 36 saves and missed a shutout by a little over a minute as the Rangers have won five of their last six games.
It was a big divisional win for the Rangers (33-13-5, 71 points) who moved past the Pittsburgh Penguins into second place in the Metro division. They lead the Pens by one point with two games in hand and also have a six point led over fourth place Washington, the first Wild Card team, with two games in hand.
“It’s one game tonight,” coach Gerard Gallant said after a satisfying win. “I think it helps us against Washington mentally. We didn’t play well our first game against ‘em. They pretty well dominated us. To play against that team, to play the way we did, I think the guys feel good about it.”
The game was billed as the return of Tom Wilson. Last May, Wilson was the perpetrator of an ugly incident where he sucker punched Pavel Buchnevich and then pulled Artemi Panarin down by his hair and then pummeled the Rangers winger. Wilson received a ten minute misconduct penalty but was not thrown out of the game.
If Tom Wilson, the actor, was the bully, Biff Tannen, in Back to the Future, this Tom Wilson was the Biff Tannen who was waxing George McFly’s car. The Capitals Tom Wilson wasn’t the same player that he was nearly ten months ago and it was no coincidence that Reaves presence had something to do with it.
Wilson was not credited with a hit, while Reaves had five and his physical play led to a goal.
The Rangers’ top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Alexis LaFreniere each scored a goal. Zibanejad and LaFreniere also had an assist for a multi-point night as the line has really started to click. “It takes a while to kinda get the chemistry going, to understand each other. He’s [LaFreniere] been improving throughout.”
The Rangers took a 1-0 after one thanks to a beautiful set up and finish by Alexis LaFreniere and Mika Zibanjejad. LaFreniere took a pass from Zibanejad and skated in on the right side. Two Caps players went with LaFreniere, who left a pretty drop pass at the top of the right face off circle that Zibanejad was able to one time past Caps goaltender Ilya Samsonov.
“He [Zibanejad] was just behind me, I saw him, so I just dropped it,” LaFreniere said. “He has a really good shot so it’s a good spot for him to shoot it.”
Late in the second period, the Rangers took a 2-0 lead thanks to LaFreniere, who played one of his best games of the season.
The 20-year old deflected Ryan Lindgren’s shot past Samsonov for his 11th goal of the season at 18:48 to give the Rangers a two goal lead after two. Significant, because the Rangers have lost only once in regulation (18-1-3 overall, 12-0-1 at home) when they lead after two.
Gallant likes the progress that his budding young star has shown of late. “He’s played better hockey, the last twenty games for sure,” he said. “Really like the way he plays, he competes hard. He wasn’t getting the goals he wanted but tonight was a big game for him.”
In the third, Chris Kreider ended his three game skid without a goal when he scored to give the Rangers a 3-0 lead. Kreider knocked down Adam Fox’s shot and corralled it in front of the net to put it past Samsonov for his 34th of the season.
Reaves used his strength to beat Alex Ovechkin to the puck and get it to Kevin Rooney, who broke in on a two on one with Barclay Goodrow. Rooney fed Goodrow, who cut in front of Samsonov and slipped it past him, five hole, for a 4-0 lead with just under nine minutes left to cap the Rangers’ scoring.
Shesterkin denied Ovechkin on a partial breakaway midway through the third, but the future Hall of Famer tipped a puck past the Ranger goaltender with just over a minute left to spoil the shutout bid.
“It is kind of annoying that l let a goal in at the end, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s a shutout or not,” Shesterkin said through an interpreter.