NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers started hot. The Washington Capitals closed strong. But the 60-minute game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon boiled down to execution after a third-period faceoff.
Mats Zuccarello's 12th goal of the season broke the tie and helped give the Rangers a 2-1 victory, their seventh win in their past eight games.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stopped 31 shots, including a save on Evgeny Kuznetsov in the final minute with Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer on the bench for an extra attacker. The only goal Lundqvist allowed was a fluke power-play goal to Alex Ovechkin in the second period that ricocheted off teammate Nick Holden and tied the game at 1-1.
But it was the work of Zuccarello and linemates Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider that resulted in the difference-making goal.
Zibanejad won the faceoff cleanly to the left wing, as Kreider jumped inside and quickly moved toward the net. That forced the Capitals' defense to rotate to Kreider and allowed Zuccarello to float open in the slot. Kreider found Zuccarello, who ripped a quick shot to the far side to give the Rangers a lead they would not relinquish.
Zuccarello said it wasn't a set play but it was the one that mattered most.
"We were able to make a real good play on the winning goal when (Kreider) jumped through and made a real nice pass to (Zuccarello)," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "Had great goaltending on both ends. It was a real hard-fought game."
The Capitals were playing their second game in less than 24 hours after a five-day break in the schedule because of a bye week. They looked sluggish to start -- they were outshot 19-10 and thoroughly dominated in the first period -- but took it to the Rangers consistently over the final 40 minutes.
Despite the dominance during the final two periods, the details on a defensive-zone faceoff cost them the game.
"In the second and third, we had the better chances and majority of the play," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "Then we get beat off the wall. It gets everybody in between. They make a play and score. They found a way to win. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. We could have lost the game in the first period."
Grubauer was sensational in the first period. He had two incredible saves on Kevin Hayes from point-blank range and made another great stop when Kreider got loose for a breakaway. He made 29 saves and benefited from a Zibanejad goal being overturned in the first period when a video review showed McDonagh had entered the zone offside.
Teams have been struggling during the first season with bye weeks and now the Capitals have dropped two in a row after winning six straight entering their break.
"They came out flying and we just couldn't handle the puck well enough to transport it or move it up the ice efficiently," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "We just gave up too much. (Grubauer) was outstanding in the first. We're shaking off the rust a bit but the second two periods is a step in the right direction."
The win for the Rangers is also a step in the right direction, although they still have a ways to go to catch the Capitals in the Metropolitan. The Rangers are eight points back of their rivals and sit fourth in the division behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.
New York has the fifth-most points in the NHL but all that's good for is the fourth-most points in their division.
"You're aware they're up there," Lundqvist said of the Capitals. "They've been so consistent. That's why they're up there. You can beat them but you need an 'A' performance and I thought we got that from everyone."
McDonagh was pleased to see his team take advantage.
"Our division is pretty tight there," said McDonagh, whose first-period goal gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead. "So when you have these matchups, you've got to try to take advantage of them, especially at home here. We knew they played the day before so we tried to have a good start."
NOTES: Capitals G Braden Holtby served as the backup and has yet to play on back-to-back days this season. He is on pace to make 62 starts, four fewer than he made last season. ... Capitals LW Jakub Vrana and D Taylor Chorney were healthy scratches. ... Rangers LW Pavel Buchnevich was back in the lineup for LW Matt Puempel after serving as a healthy scratch Thursday against the New York Islanders. ... Rangers D Kevin Klein (illness) returned to action after a one-game absence. ... Rangers D Adam Clendening was a healthy scratch.