WASHINGTON — If the highly anticipated season-opening showdown with the Capitals was never about avenging last season’s shenanigans or proving a point, well, then the Rangers don’t have to worry.
The Blueshirts, however, clung to the notion that they had a strong start in what was ultimately a frustrating 5-1 loss to the Capitals in their season opener at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night. But for a game that was supposed to be the unveiling of their harder-to-play-against lineup, there was very little fight from the visitors on the scoreboard — where it matters.
“I was happy as hell with the way we played the first half,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “We contained them. You come into this building, they’ve got six or seven shots after 33 minutes, so I was pretty happy with the way the game was going. Their goalie made three or four great saves in the first to keep it scoreless. That definitely hurt us, not scoring early.
“I told the guys after the second period, ‘We got to play the same way every shift, you can’t change your game because you’re down 2-0. They got some breaks, we didn’t put the puck in the net, they did.’ You got keep playing the same way and obviously we didn’t play the same way.”
It may have been the first game, but considering Gallant opted to dress the meatier version of his roster to specifically counter Capitals agitator Tom Wilson and a physical Washington team, the Rangers likely learned that tougher doesn’t exactly equal better.
The Rangers struggled to stay out of the penalty box. Washington capitalized on three of its six power plays, with one man-advantage goal in each period. While they put a few pucks on net early on, the Rangers couldn’t find the back of the net and let the game slip away as the Capitals exploded in the middle frame with a 15-5 shots advantage that included goals from Justin Schultz and rookie Hendrix Lapierre.
Alexander Ovechkin poured on two more goals in the third, including a shorthanded dagger toward the end of regulation, which pushed the Capitals star past Marcel Dionne into fifth place on the NHL’s all-time goals list. The Rangers’ lone tally, from Chris Kreider on the power play, came in between Ovechkin’s two scores.
Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev, who got the starting nod over Igor Shesterkin amid the back-to-back schedule, allowed five goals on 27 shots.
“I thought five-on-five in the first, we were doing pretty good, I mean, it’s a tough road game and first game of the season,” Mika Zibanejad said. “Obviously, in the second they get those two goals, got a couple bounces on the power play. All in all, I thought when we stuck to our plan and the way we want to play, I thought we played pretty good.”
The stage was set long before game time in Washington, with a rambunctious crowd outside of Capital One Arena that included a man in a Capitals jersey walking on stilts and — fittingly — “My Own Worst Enemy” by Lit blasting through some speakers.
Capitals fans erupted when their man of the evening, Wilson, was introduced in the opening-night ceremony. And as the Rangers took the ice, the boos rained down from all three levels of the arena while the small-but-noticeable New York fans in the building tried to make themselves heard.
The anticipated physicality was certainly there, with the Rangers out-hitting the Caps 27-12 and posting a total of 18 penalty minutes. There’s no disputing the fact the Rangers toughened up this offseason, but the question of whether they improved is certainly still lingering after Game 1.