- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lights, camera — ladies and gentlemen, the Washington Capitals that everyone expected coming into the season.

When the Caps were pegged as a Stanley Cup contender, it was based on a talented and deep offense and, naturally, goaltending. Offseason moves were supposed to make them harder to play against.

Little of that was on display in the first month of Dale Hunter’s regime as coach, with mediocre play and bouts of inconsistency preventing much in the way of tangible progress.

But on Wednesday night, everything just seemed to go right and the result was a decisive 4-1 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers at Verizon Center.

“You look at this team and we’re a good team,” goaltender Tomas Vokoun said. “We haven’t showed that in a long time — or we do for one game. If we play consistently like that, it’s hard to beat us.”

It took a little bit of what Vokoun likes to call “puck luck,” especially early in the game when the Rangers were buzzing. But good teams and good performances lead to breaks, and the Caps took advantage of the mistakes that they had been on the wrong end of in recent losses.

“I thought we beat ourselves a little bit,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “They’re an opportunistic team. We didn’t defend and [allowed] them to score.”

When Michal Del Zotto inexplicably turned the puck over in the neutral zone, Jeff Halpern and Marcus Johansson were there to make a goal happen — Johansson’s first since Nov. 11.

With puck possession in the offensive zone, Troy Brouwer atoned for a couple blatant missed opportunities by screening Marty Biron and tipping the puck past him.

And when Brad Richards turned the puck over during a collision with Alex Ovechkin, fellow Young Guns Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin hooked up with a perfect stretch pass and backhanded shot for the Caps’ third goal of the night.

Semin enjoyed his first multi-point game of the season and Ovechkin his first since Nov. 4.

“When those guys get into the game early, they’re tough to stop,” Brouwer said. “It’s a real big benefit for our team when they’re going.”

It was domination in the kind of way the Caps made famous two years ago en route to the Presidents’ Trophy. This wasn’t run-and-gun hockey by any means, but it was a Washington team that capitalized on seemingly every Rangers error and turned it into something — be it a scoring chance or a goal.

Given the Caps’ penchant for inconsistency, this victory — which moved them into a playoff spot in a tight conference — is no guarantee of future success in the near or distant future. Problems like allowing too many chances were still prevalent Wednesday, and a sharper Rangers group probably makes this a game.

But the Caps did manage to rediscover the same form that got them a win last week against Nashville, and perhaps one that could be a blueprint against other good teams.

“We came out playing the right way and the guys put together a good whole 60 minutes,” Hunter said.

They were hard to play against, too, which in it of itself is a major victory.

“All through the lineup guys were just playing tough — not letting guys get free passes, even in front of our net, playing hard on their cycle — stuff like that,” Brouwer said. “When you play tough, when you play hard, it makes it hard for the other team to create anything.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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