But Hunter played only 16 minutes and didn't come close to Kovalev. Instead, it was a duel of hot goaltenders -- New York's Glenn Healy, who was getting his first start in a month, and the Washington Capitals' Rick Tabaracci, who picked up where he left off Tuesday night at The Spectrum against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The teams were locked in a scoreless tie for 49 minutes and 52 seconds. That's when New York left wing Adam Graves came storming through a crowd of Washington defenders to shove the puck in the net for a 1-0 lead that stood up and gave the Rangers their fourth straight victory over the Capitals this season before 15,772 at USAir Arena.
And while Washington got Hunter back, the Capitals lost defenseman Kevin Hatcher for seven to 10 days with a broken left hand. Hatcher was hurt in the first period by a slash, according to Capitals coach Terry Murray. Hatcher played the rest of the game, and the severity of the injury was not discovered until after the game.
On the winning goal, Murray said the Rangers got a break. "The puck was laying in the crease, and they get a guy [Graves] going through and putting it in the net. We had everything closed off pretty good. Actually I think the puck hit one of our defender's skates and stopped.
"They get a goal like that, and we hit the post a couple of times and can't score."
Washington (15-17-2) looked as though it might force overtime with 32 seconds left when Randy Burridge got the puck to Michal Pivonka, who drilled a shot at Healy who made his 20th save his biggest one.
It was the sixth career save for the backup goaltender. Rangers No. 1 goalie, Mick Richter, who played Wednesday in Miami when the Florida Panthers beat the Rangers to end his team-record, 20-game unbeaten streak, had the night off.
Healy played as if he had never been out of the lineup, frustrating the Capitals and keeping the Rangers (24-8-3) the top team in the NHL.
"It's a tough situation to play like this," Healy said. "It's taxing mentally. You would like to have something like an 8-0 lead early . . . ha-ha . . . when you come in after not playing for a month. Goaltending is a real timing position, and you have to work hard in practice to stay sharp when you're not playing."
Tabaracci had 24 saves for Washington and deserved a better fate as he continues to be super in the goal.
For Hunter, it was a decent return, and his presence should bolster the Washington hopes as mid-season draws near.
"Dale is a big part of our team," Murray said. "We're fortunate to be only two games under .500 with him missing all but three games. I thought he did OK coming back tonight. You have to remember it was different this time than the first [the suspension that kept him out first 21 games]. He couldn't practice because of the injury [torn medial collateral ligament]."
NOTES: NHL great Gordie Howe ended his 65th birthday celebration tour of 65 cities last night in Washington. Howe raised $1 million for charities on the goodwill trip, emphasizing youth sports. Youth hockey in Washington received the money Howe raised on his D.C. stop. Howe was introduced at center ice before the game, given a Caps' No. 65 jersey, and dropped the ceremonial first puck. . . . The Capitals third annual skills competition will be held Monday at 7 p.m. at USAir Arena for the benefit of Children's Hospital. This year's competition will also include a celebrity contest, with the Orioles' Gregg Olson and the Redskins' Chip Lohmiller, Matt Elliott, Rick Graf and Rich Gannon among the participants.