Friday, March 17, 2006

NEW YORK — The whistle that wasn’t heard turned last night’s game in New York’s favor, according to Washington, and the Capitals were unable to catch up.

That’s one way to look at it.

Another way is that the Caps took six penalties and the Rangers scored on half their chances, while Washington also had six power play opportunities but failed to convert.

Either way, it added up to a 5-4 victory for the Rangers in a tightly contested game. New York snapped a six-game losing streak while winning for only the second time since the Olympic break.

The incident that upset the Caps came at 11:17 of the third period with the Rangers up by one on Jaromir Jagr’s goal four minutes earlier. Washington’s Brian Willsie appeared to tie the game by scoring from a bad angle to the left of the net, but the goal was immediately waved off by referee Tom Kowal.

The officials’ explanation was that Kowal, who called his first NHL game in 1999, was in the process of blowing his whistle to indicate he had lost sight of the puck before Willsie put it behind rookie goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

“Did I hear a whistle before the puck went in the net?” Washington coach Glen Hanlon asked rhetorically after the game. “No, of course not. We just watched it on the tape. The interpretation of the rule was explained to me, and I don’t agree with it.”

Said Willsie: “I thought it was a quick whistle. … It seemed [Kowal] was in a good spot; he thought [Lundqvist] froze it. But it popped out, and I whacked it in. The whistle was after it was in the net, but I guess that was obvious.”

If Caps rookie sensation Alex Ovechkin had been able to get away from the Rangers defenders he was wearing, he might have taken the league goal-scoring lead. But it didn’t work out that way.

Jagr started the night with a one-goal edge (44-43), and the game-winner was his ninth of the season, tying a Rangers record. That, coupled with an assist, gave the former Cap 97 points for the season.

Lundqvist is among the four or five players in the running for the Calder Cup as the league’s top rookie, and he won the game for his team in the opening five minutes while New York was successfully killing a double minor. He turned aside five shots in that span, at least four of them very tough and one a save on a point-blank blast by Dainius Zubrus. He had the Caps talking to themselves.

New York had a 2-0 lead before the Caps tied it on goals by Brian Sutherby and Willsie. But defenseman Bryan Muir matched the next Rangers goal, and the tie was maintained.

Chris Clark finally put Washington ahead, but Sandis Ozolinsh forged another deadlock on the home team’s third power play strike of the game.

Jagr’s goal was the only score of the third period. He came in on Olie Kolzig, brushed defenseman Shaone Morrisonn aside, froze the goalie in his tracks and breezed past him, scoring off a backhander. Michael Nylander, another refugee from the Caps’ salary dump, assisted on the winner and also on two previous scores.

Notes — Long-time hockey fans were surprised last night to see veteran (1,600-plus games) referee Kerry Fraser wearing a helmet. He donned the helmet, which he hasn’t worn since he started officiating in 1975, so he could wear an emblem honoring the late Dennis Ryan, who headed Rangers security for years. …

The anthem last night was sung by Dominic Chianese, otherwise known as Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos.” He was cheered wildly. … Washington had no players sidelined with injuries for the third time this season, and defenseman Nolan Yonkman was the lone healthy scratch. … The Caps rode Amtrak both ways, a departure from usual methods of travel even for such a short distance. … There is no practice scheduled for today, probably because the team was scheduled to arrive back in the area so late.

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