Rangers begin tough stretch with statement win over Capitals

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The Rangers looked like a team that was prepared to take on the highest-scoring squad in their division.

With an uphill battle of a schedule staring them in the face, the Rangers kicked off the climb with a 4-2 statement victory over the mighty Capitals at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

It’s not lost on the Rangers that the rest of February is going to serve as a litmus test for a playoff berth in the loaded East. But head coach David Quinn wants his team to focus on one game at a time, and the Rangers went out for this one and played like the Capitals were the only team on their minds.

“I liked a lot about our game from the get-go,” Quinn said after the win, which improved the Rangers to 4-4-2. “I thought we were all dialed in. I thought we were mentally and physically ready to go.”

Behind two goals from Ryan Strome, the Rangers earned their first back-to-back wins and handed the Capitals just their second regulation loss of the season. The Blueshirts matched Washington’s heaviness along the boards and skated a strong 200-foot game for nearly 60 minutes, with Pavel Buchnevich’s empty-netter proving to be the insurance tally and sealing the win.

Washington poured on the pressure each time after making it a one-goal game in both the second and third periods, on goals from former Ranger Carl Hagelin and Alex Ovechkin, who tallied his 709th career goal to give him sole possession of seventh place on the NHL’s all-time list.

Quinn considered it to be another learning experience for these young Rangers, who still haven’t quite gotten a hold of competing with a lead this season.

But the Rangers played up to the challenge and hung on to essentially nullify their rocky start.

“You go up two-nothing, you want to get out of that period up two-nothing,” Quinn said. “Part of the learning curve for us is still managing when you go up two-nothing. How to play a game and play the game within the game.”

After drawing a slashing penalty on Brett Howden with 10 seconds left in the middle frame, the Capitals had the man-advantage to start the third. But the Rangers extended their streak of lockdown penalty killing, stifling all four Capitals power plays on the night to bring the unit to a perfect 13-for-13 over the past three games.

The Rangers had one of their most complete first periods of the season, emerging with a 1-0 lead. Strome deflected an Adam Fox shot in at 1:41 and the Rangers protected the advantage, while keeping up the pressure and stringing together opportunity after opportunity.

Anthony Bitetto put the Rangers up 2-0 at 9:15 of the second after attacking the net and finishing with a backhanded shot. Kevin Rooney earned the assist on the play, extending his point streak to three games.

“I don’t think we played 60 minutes of the way we envision playing, but we played a majority of the minutes the way we want to play,” Quinn said. “I just like how we competed. We survived some pushback from Washington and you’re going to have to play games within the game. I thought we did a better job of that tonight, I don’t think we’ve done a great job of that throughout the first part of the season.”

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