NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers are the defending Stanley Cup Champions after all, and last night they played like it, ending the Washington Capitals two-game winning streak with a 5-4 victory that made the fight for post-season playoff positions that much more interesting.
The Rangers had been written off in yesterday's morning newspapers. Their season, it was said, was history. Their character, it was said, was questionable. Their playoff hopes were, it was suggested, hopeless.
All that said -- and no doubt read by the Rangers -- New York came out playing like last season had never ended. They muscled their way to a 3-0 first-period lead on goals by Adam Graves, Brian Noonan and Sergei Zubov in the first 6:25 and forced Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld to pull starter Jim Carey.
"It was a difficult loss for us," said Schoenfeld. "We were a little tentative and not moving our feet and that caused part of our problem. . . . And this just wasn't going to be Jim's night tonight. He just didn't seem his usual self. We didn't give him much rebound protection, but he just wasn't his usual miraculous self for a period."
It was the third time this season Carey had been pulled in a game, and the second time he had been pulled in a loss.
The Capitals had been stung early by two Rangers goals, one on a power play by Graves and the other at even strength by Noonan. The Noonan goal had come after a big hit by Nick Kypreos on Calle Johansson that dazed Johansson and seemed to stun all five Caps on the ice.
"I don't know if it was a good hit," said Caps defenseman Mark Tinordi, who later took a hit himself that will sideline him for up to 10 days with a sprained right knee. "But it was a big hit. I went after Kypreos a little bit and when I turned around the Rangers were still skating and we all seemed to be stopping and it cost us a goal."
Noonan's goal made it 2-0 and an ensuing bench penalty handed to Schoenfeld for protesting Kypreos' hit, gave New York another power play and Zubov scored on that one to make it 3-0.
Schoenfeld would not say his actions, which included an "elbow signal and a charging signal" cost the Capitals the game, although it certainly gave the Rangers the opportunity to jump on Washington early.
"There was a lot of hockey yet to play," he said. "Sometimes, you know, when your players are being injured like Calle was in that situation you have to at least bring it to the officials' attention and sometimes those things pay dividends down the road. You know we're in this thing together, coaching staff and players. We want what's best for them and sometimes you have to make a stand for your player."
A request was made for referee Bill McCreary to come out and address the incident, but he declined.
The Rangers were intent on not letting the Capitals back in the game the way they had Boston on Sunday afternoon, when a 2-0 lead turned into a 5-4 loss. Despite their intentions, this game was nerve-wracking for them in the closing minutes.
Washington's Dale Hunter and Sylvain Cote scored in the third period to bring the Caps within one at 5-4 with 10:06 to play. When Michal Pivonka nearly put one by Rangers goalie Mike Richter with 1:43 to play, Cote said the "Rangers were getting tight and were no longer playing with confidence."
But they held on.
"A win is a win is a win," said Rangers coach Colin Campbell. "Tonight we deserved to win, but we tried to throw it away. I don't know how to explain tonight. But it was a very important win."
With the victory, New York moved out of a tie for eighth in the Eastern Conference and into a two-way tie for seventh with Hartford with 43 points.
The loss did not cost the Capitals a position. They remain in sixth, with a 19-18-7 mark and 45 points.
But with just four games left and five teams within four points of them, the pressure to win intensifies.