It wasn't without a struggle, but the Capitals, now unbeaten at home in 2010, extended their 12-game winning streak Saturday night with another 2-0 win over the Rangers at Verizon Center with help from a player that Washington GM George McPhee picked up at the trading deadline.
Playing a defensive style that frustrated Washington at times during last year's first-round playoff matchup, New York was able to slow down the Capitals' fast-paced attack and get some good scoring chances of their own thanks to some sloppy turnovers. But timely saves by Jose Theodore masked some very careless play in front of him, and the netminder earned his first shutout in nearly a year with a strong 30-save effort.
With the Rangers threatening to negate a one-goal Washington lead in the second period, Eric Belanger, picked up from Minnesota for a second-round draft pick Wednesday, snuck past the Rangers defenders and beat the New York netminder Alex Auld with 6:26 left in the period.
"Its great to be around guys that win games like that," Belanger said afterwards. "You just want to keep winning.
The win delivered the team's 95th and 96th points of the season -- which now five points ahead of Chicago and San Jose in the President's Trophy race for most points in the regular season and home ice throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs -- which could be key to a team that has lost just three regulation games at Verizon Center this season (25-3-3).
Thanks to just one regulation loss in their last 20 games (17-1-2), Washington now is also closing in on its third straight Southeast Division title, a title it could clinch before the five-game homestand ends Friday night. In just 65 games, this year's club also surpassed the point total of the first of those teams, as the 2007-08 Capitals finished with a total of 94 points over an 82-game span.
But as the Capitals honored the 35th anniversary of the team's first season in 1974-75 with a special video presentation and a patch on their jerseys, this edition of Washington's NHL franchise has much loftier expectations. With 17 games left in the regular season before the playoffs begin, the team is currently on pace to record 121 points, which would shatter last year's franchise-record point total by 13 points.
On this night, the Capitals needed to call on their depth as the team's superstar, Alexander Ovechkin, continued to struggle, now in a season-worst funk of going six straight games without a goal. But thanks to some strong play by Eric Fehr, Belanger's tally and Theodore's timely saves, it didn't matter that their top guns were held without a goal as Washington moved a staggering 30 points ahead of second-place Atlanta in the Southeast Division race.
New York got an early power play when Tom Poti was whistled for slashing 1:34 into the game, but it was Washington that got the better opportunities, with Jason Chimera and Alexander Semin both getting decent scoring chances while a man down.
Eric Fehr got a golden scoring chance five minutes in, as he outhustled Rangers defensemen Matt Gilroy and Wade Redden to a loose puck and broke on Alex Auld, but the goaltender making his first start for the Rangers since being claimed off waivers from Dallas a week ago made the stop to keep the game scoreless.
The Rangers picked up a couple of scoring chances of their own just over a minute later as Brandon Dubinsky couldn't quite poke home the puck on a flurry of activity in front of Jose Theodore, but the puck stayed out of the net.
New York agitator Sean Avery then gave the home club its first power play of the night for hooking Shaone Morrisonn at 8:58, then Marc Staal got called for holding the stick for a 5-on-3 Capitals advantage just :15 later. However, after Semin broke his stick in half trying to one-time a shot and Mike Green was tripped up with a chance to break in alone on Auld, Fehr helped the Caps cash in.
With just two seconds left in the two-man advantage, Fehr tipped home a cross-ice from Tomas Fleischmann that Brooks Laich let skip by and Fehr redirected the puck just under the crossbar with 9:04 left in the first.
Fehr's tally was the only of the first period, and despite being outshot 12-9 by the Rangers, the Capitals were up 1-0.
New York put more pressure on Thedore to open the second, including getting a glorious scoring chance on a horrendous giveaway by Morrisonn where his poor pass to John Carlson became a perfect centering feed to the Rangers' Brandon Dubinsky - who was skating all alone in front of the Washington net. However, Theodore stopped Dubinsky's prime chance, and was able to keep the Caps' slim lead intact despite some sloppy play by the defensemen in front of him.
Afterwards, Carlson said Morrisonn mistakenly thought the play was a delayed offside, meaning the Ranger forward couldn't have touched the puck without a whistle.
"I kind of froze a little bit when [Dubinsky] faked the shot, but I didnt go down," Theodore said. "That was obviously a key save.
"As a goalie, there is not a better feeling than when you bail one of your friends out of trouble like that."
Washington, however, was the team able to cash in on ragged play by the defense, as the Caps extended their lead with 6:22 to play.
Parked outside the blue line, Semin fed a cross-ice to Brooks Laich into the Rangers' zone, and Laich fed a streaking Eric Belanger who had gotten past a pair of Rangers defensemen -- and Dubinsky -- who were caught up at the blue line. Belanger skated in alone past Dubinsky's attempt to slow him down and fired the puck past Auld for his first goal as a Capital.
"We fell asleep on the second goal," Rangers coach John Tortorella said afterwards. "Semin throws a cross ice pass and weve got two or three guys who just arent ready. Thats the story of the game.
Belanger did get whistled for a high stick, and New York's Ryan Callahan got a golden chance just over three minutes in to score with a turnaround backhand shot that was headed just inside the post, but Theodore just got enough of the puck of before it went in the net and kicked it out to safety.
After killing off the penalty, the Caps did buckle down more defensively, to keep the Rangers from lighting the lamp and being able to move into a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Even given a pair of late power-plays and a chance to salt the game away, Washington sat back and was more defensive-minded, looking to get their goaltender the shutout rather than pinch at the points and allow New York a shorthanded opportunity.
Theodore, who last recorded a shutout last March 17 in Florida -- and was subsequently benched after a poor outing in Game 1 of last year's first-round series against New York -- got his first one of this campaign in which he seems to be emerging past last year's playoff hero Semyon Varlamov as the goaltender who likely will get the not once the Stanley Cup playoffs begin.
"Right now, the last month and a half I feel good," Theodore said afterwards. "You just want to have that good stretch when it counts.
"I thought he was great," Bruce Boudreau said of his netminder. "I thought he was by far our best player Any time they were putting pressure on us, Jose would get it and he would stop it and he would not let a rebound go tonight and thats, I think, the key to his game. Hes brimming with confidence and we hope he can keep it."
The Capitals will continue their homestand Monday night when the Dallas pays a visit to Verizon Center, as the Stars -- who are fighting to secure a playoff berth in the tightly-packed Western Conference -- blew a 3-1 lead in Pittsburgh to lose Saturday afternoon on a road trip that will take the team through the top three teams in the East.
And on a night where the team looked to their past, the team hopes that its depth and goaltending will help them overcome an otherwise sloppy performance and carry high aspirations through the two-month grind of the postseason.