The hype of Wednesday’s season opener between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers had been building, basically since the teams were involved in two line brawls late last season. There was an expectation that the game would quickly turn physical with fights dominating the night at Capital One Arena.
Those expecting fisticuffs may have left disappointed. Capitals fans hoping for a win and to see Alex Ovechkin continue his climb up the NHL’s all-time goals list were rewarded.
Ovechkin scored a pair of third-period goals and added two assists as the Capitals opened with an impressive 5-1 win over their Metropolitan Division rivals.
The Capitals’ captain moved into fifth place, passing Marcel Dionne, with his 731st and 732nd goals. The 36-year-old scored in multiple ways — his first was on the power play, pushing Washington’s lead to 4-0. His second came shorthanded and accounted for the final margin. It was his first shorthanded goal since 2008-09.
Not bad considering Ovechkin was a game-time decision to start the night after suffering a lower-body injury in Friday’s preseason finale.
Before Ovechkin’s heroics, all eyes were on Tom Wilson, who has been at the center of much of the ill-will between the teams last season. But the expected violence never arrived; Ryan Reaves and Jared Tinordi, two of the Rangers’ offseason additions to physically bulk up their roster, were non-factors.
Instead, the opening faceoff went off without a hitch and the Capitals’ jumped out to an early 1-0 lead with T.J. Oshie’s power-play goal 4:39 into the first period. Justin Schultz scored Washington’s second goal of the night and 19-year-old Hendrix Lapierre gave the Capitals a 3-0 lead. Ovechkin’s two goals on the night sandwiched the Rangers’ lone tally in the third.
Here are some takeaways from the opener:
Lapierre, who was a long shot to make the team’s season-opening roster entering training camp, made his presence known Wednesday night. Not only did he score his first NHL goal, but his maturity and on-ice skills were both evident and important for a team without Nicklas Backstrom, who will miss a minimum of 10 games because of a left hip injury.
Lapierre’s goal came from a stellar drop pass from Oshie on a second-period rush, giving the Capitals a 3-0 lead. Oshie proceeded to throw his glove and stick away before picking Lapierre off the ice to celebrate as the sellout crowd erupted.
Lapierre, the Capitals’ 2020 first-round draft pick, won the competition for third-line center with Backstrom on long-term injured reserve to start the season. He beat out Connor McMichael, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, and his creativity and eagerness to learn impressed veterans.
Ovechkin said Wednesday morning the young players, notably Lapierre and McMichael, deserved to make the roster. He also noted how the infusion of youth could benefit the entire roster.
“It’s very good see young players to come in and help in the game,” Ovechkin said. “They’re ready and they feel strong and it’s fun to watch what they do with the puck.”
Lapierre also had support outside the locker room Wednesday — his mother, father, sister, brother, grandfather, grandmother and girlfriend all were in attendance to see him center a line with Oshie and Conor Sheary.
McMichael still made the season-opening roster, but was a healthy scratch.
Capitals stayed disciplined
Despite the questions swirling about the Rangers’ intentions entering Wednesday, the Capitals stayed fairly disciplined throughout. It was clear Washington’s intent was not to initiate any tussles.
Wilson said before the game that getting involved in a “big, physical first night with the Rangers” was not something he nor his teammates were interested in. The game only saw a few scuffles, often quickly broken up by the referees.
The only scuffle of the night was Trevor van Riemsdyk and Sammy Blais dropping the gloves less than two minutes into the first period. Van Riemsdyk took exception to Blais’s hit on Schultz in the corner. Blais and van Riemsdyk were both assessed double minors for roughing.
George Parros, the NHL’s head of the department of player safety, was also in the building. So was NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. who said before the puck dropped that the game had the league’s attention when the schedule was made.
“We think it would be best if everybody focused on being on the right side of the line as opposed to the wrong side of the line,” Bettman said.
Second-year goaltender Vitek Vanecek earned Wednesday’s start in net over Ilya Samsonov after a strong training camp. He stopped the first 21 shots he faced before letting in the Rangers’ lone goal of the night with 10:47 left in the third.
The team leaned heavily on Vanecek last year while Samsonov was on the league’s coronavirus list twice. Vanecek ended up going 21-10-4, with a .908 save percentage and a 2.95 goals against average. He was the Capitals’ starting goaltender in the 2021 postseason before he suffered a lower-body injury in Game 1 and did not play again. The team exposed Vanecek in the NHL expansion draft before Seattle traded him back to the Capitals for a 2023 draft pick.
Samsonov, who signed a one-year, $2 million contract in the offseason, was expected to be the team’s No. 1 goalie headed into the season, with experience on his side. But his preseason play was inconsistent and similar to his performance last season.