Capitals roll past Rangers on opening night as Alex Ovechkin moves up NHL goals list

The hype of Wednesday’s season opener between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers had been building since the teams had a fight-filled matchup late last season. A physical showdown was expected, with fights surely 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 and pushed Washington’s lead to 4-0. His second came with his team shorthanded and accounted for the final margin. It was his first shorthanded goal since 2008-09.

Story continues below advertisement

Not bad considering Ovechkin was a game-time decision after he suffered a lower-body injury in Friday’s preseason finale.

Before Ovechkin’s heroics, all eyes were on Tom Wilson, who was at the center of much of the ill will between the teams last season. But the expected violence never arrived; Ryan Reaves and Jarred Tinordi, two of the Rangers’ offseason additions to bulk up their roster, were nonfactors.

Instead, the opening faceoff went off without a hitch, and the Capitals jumped to a 1-0 lead with T.J. Oshie’s power-play goal 4:39 in. 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 goal in the third, on the power play by Chris Kreider.

Story continues below advertisement

Here’s what to know about Wednesday’s opener:

Lapierre, who was a long shot to make the season-opening roster entering training camp, made his presence known. Not only did he score his first NHL goal, but his maturity and on-ice skills were evident and important for a team without Nicklas Backstrom, who will miss a minimum of 10 games while on long-term injured reserve with a left hip injury.

Lapierre’s goal came after a stellar drop pass from Oshie on a second-period rush and gave the Capitals a 3-0 lead. Oshie proceeded to throw his glove and stick away before picking Lapierre off the ice to celebrate with him as the crowd erupted.

Story continues below advertisement

“I knew it was his first one, I was super excited, and I just thought the celebration would’ve been better with him on his feet,” Oshie said. “... It was just a great moment. You could see not only me but the other guys on the ice and everyone on the bench were just super happy for him.”

Lapierre, the Capitals’ 2020 first-round draft pick, won the competition to be the third-line center with Backstrom sidelined. He beat out Connor McMichael, a 2019 first-round pick, and his creativity and eagerness to learn impressed veterans.

Ovechkin said Wednesday morning that 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.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s very good to see young players 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 dressing room Wednesday — his mother, father, sister, brother, grandfather, grandmother and girlfriend were in attendance to see him center a line with Oshie and Conor Sheary.

“I’m sure we will have a lot to talk about after the game,” Lapierre said. “I don’t know where they were sitting, how they celebrated, but I’m sure they were pretty happy, and it’s a good reward for everyone. ... Just a tremendous family celebration, and I can’t wait to see them.”

Despite the questions swirling about the Rangers’ intentions entering Wednesday, the Capitals stayed fairly disciplined. It was clear Washington’s focus was to avoid initiating anything physical.

Story continues below advertisement

Wilson said before the game that getting involved in a “big, physical first night with the Rangers” was not something he or his teammates were interested in. The game had only a few scuffles, often quickly broken up by the referees.

Capitals defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and the Rangers’ Sammy Blais dropped their gloves less than two minutes into the game. Van Riemsdyk took exception to Blais’s hit on Schultz in the corner, but Blais and van Riemsdyk were assessed double minors for roughing instead of five minutes for fighting.

George Parros, who leads the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, was in the building. So was Commissioner Gary Bettman, who said before the puck dropped that the game had the league’s attention when the schedule was made.

Story continues below advertisement

“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,” he said.

The teams combined for 34 penalty minutes — 18 for the Rangers, 16 for the Capitals.

Second-year goaltender Vitek Vanecek earned the start in net over Ilya Samsonov after a strong training camp. He stopped the first 21 shots he faced before Kreider scored with 10:47 to go.

The Capitals leaned heavily on Vanecek last season, when Samsonov went on the league’s coronavirus protocols list twice. Vanecek ended up going 21-10-4 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.69 goals against average. He was the starting goaltender to begin the postseason but suffered a lower-body injury in Game 1 against the Boston Bruins and did not play again. The Capitals exposed Vanecek in the expansion draft; the Seattle Kraken selected him but later traded him back to Washington for a 2023 second-round draft pick.

Story continues below advertisement

Samsonov, who signed a one-year, $2 million contract in the offseason, was expected to be the No. 1 goalie heading into the season. But his preseason play was inconsistent — and similar to his performance last year.

“His camp, for me, I thought it was really good,” Coach Peter Laviolette said of Vanecek on Wednesday morning. “Separated himself a little bit. For that, he gets the opportunity to start.”