Twenty-four hours after losing alternate captain Marc Staal to injury and dropping a bitter 4-3 overtime decision to the New Jersey Devils, the Rangers weekend turned from bad to worse on Sunday when the Blueshirts were beaten by the Washington Capitals 4-1 at Madison Square Garden.
The weekend losses dropped the Rangers to 5-7-1 on home ice this season as the team started their season-high nine-game homestand on a decidedly sour note. The win was Washington's second in as many nights and fourth in their last five games as they moved three points ahead of New York in the Metropolitan Division standings.
Staal, who could not finish Saturday's game after taking a hard hit to the jaw during the third period of Saturday's Garden tilt with the Devils, did not play at all on Sunday and is currently being evaluated by the team's medical personnel as he suffers symptoms of a concussion. Head coach Alain Vigneault said before the game that Staal is being treated for "neck issues" which may be causing the symptoms Staal is experiencing. Needless to say this is a scary road for both Staal and the team to travel down again, just two years after the defenseman was sidelined 36 games due to a concussion.
Playing without Staal in the lineup the Rangers played a scoreless first period before Washington erupted for three goals in the second period. Henrik Lundqvist surrendered two goals in a 25-second span early in the second before Mikhail Grabovski scored on a debateable penalty shot in the final two minutes of the period.
At the other end of the ice 22 year-old rookie Philipp Grubauer picked up his first National Hockey league victory, finishing with 30 saves. Grubauer filled in for Braden Holtby who had started 11 of Washington's last 12 games, and was on the roster only because back up Michal Neuvirth is injured. It was his second appearance and first start this season, and just the fourth appearance of his brief NHL career.
Benoit Pouliot, back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch Saturday night, snapped Grubauer's shutout bid with 1:53 remaining in the third period. Pouliot deflected Michael Del Zotto's slap shot past Grubauer from the slot for his third goal of the season, and first in 19 games.
Jason Chimera opened the scoring 2:28 into the second period, pushing a loose puck past a prone Lundqvist during a scramble in the Rangers crease for his sixth goal of the season. Twnety-five seconds later defenseman Steve Oleksy made it 2-0 when his right-point shot deflected off a Ranger and past a surprised Lundqvist. Oleksy, who also assisted on Chimera's goal, was credited with his first goal of the season, and only the second of his NHL career--the other coming last season, also against the Rangers.
Trailing 2-0 the Rangers picked up their game somewhat, but their scoring chances were minimal against Grubauer. Given their first power play of the game at 10:41 of the second period, the Rangers not only did not score, they needed to be bailed out by Lundqvist who made back-to-back sensational saves on Chimera's deflection and Joel Ward's putback at 11:44 with the Caps skating shorthanded.
Later with two minutes to play in the period Grabovski was sent in behind the Rangers defense and broke in on Lundqvist, who made a terrific left-pad save. However Grabovski was awarded a controversial penalty shot because in the official's opinion Ryan McDonagh hooked the Caps winger on his breakaway.
Despite Vigneault's vocal objection, the puck was placed at center ice and Grabovski collected it, skated at Lundqvist with speed, and then blasted a slap shot over his shoulder from between the circles at 18:26. The goal was Grabovski's ninth of the season, and it put the Rangers in a dispiriting 3-0 hole.
The penalty shot was the 11th against Lundqvist in his NHL career, and only the fourth such goal allowed by the Rangers goaltender. He had stopped his previous four penalty shots, not having allowed such a goal since Sidney Crosby beat him on January 18, 2009 in Pittsburgh.
Washington defenseman Nate Schmidt beat Lundqvist on a long, partially-screened slapper at 17:03 of the third period to make it 4-0 Washington before Pouliot's score 64 seconds later.
One thing the Rangers did do well Sunday was keep the league's leadng goal scorer Alex Ovechkin in check. Ovechkin was held without a point, and had one prime scoring chance which was flagged down midway through the game by Lundqvist's lightning-quick glove.
Ovechkin and Rick Nash engaged in an angry, nasty sparring and slashing duel after the whistle had blown with 3:20 to play in the middle period. Nash was upset about a high hit delivered by Ovechkin and started the skirmish by slashing the Capitals captain near the Rangers bench. Ovechkin eventually punched Nash in the face after some pushing and shoving by the two superstars, and the pair were separated and sent to their respective penalty boxes.
Del Zotto returned to the Rangers lineup, taking the place of the injured Staal alongside Anton Stralman---who made a clutch play in the opening period by clearing the puck off the goal line after Lundqvist had just made a save on Ward from in close. Del Zotto, a healthy scratch in six of the Rangers previous 12 games, did a credible job on the team's second defense pairing Sunday night, and earned an assist on Pouliot's goal.
Derek Dorsett did not play once again due to a sore wrist.
The Rangers have an off day on Monday, and then return to action Tuesday night at The Garden when they host the Nashville Predators.