The Washington Capitals entered Tuesday night's matchup against the New York Rangers coming off one of their most impressive victories of the season, a 5-1 smashing over the New York Islanders on the road on Saturday night.
Those good vibes didn't last long, however.
Star winger Alex Ovechkin (lower-body) and forward Sonny Milano (illness) were ruled out just a couple of hours before puck drop. And when it was time to take the ice against the Rangers, the Capitals came out slow and fell in too deep of a hole to climb out of, falling 5-3 in a game they badly needed to win to keep pace in the playoff race.
Tuesday night's game at Madison Square Garden started eerily similar to how Saturday's matchup began: an early goal allowed by the visitors. New York got on the scoreboard just over four minutes into the first period, as star Mika Zibanejad beat Darcy Kuemper from the slot on the Rangers' first shot attempt of the game.
After taking an early lead, New York dictated the pace of the game for the majority of the first period. The home side did an excellent job of keeping the puck in their offensive zone, as it took roughly 12 minutes of ice time for the Capitals to register their first shot on goal.
Despite being outplayed for the majority of the opening frame, the Capitals were able to break through with 5:31 remaining in the period. Nicolas Aube-Kubel beat Rangers netminder Igor Shesterkin from the slot, his fourth goal of the season, to even the score at one.
Any momentum the Capitals appeared to gain was quickly erased. Just 16 seconds after Aube-Kubel tied the game, the Rangers retook the lead on Zibanejad's second goal of the evening -- one that came on a pretty assist on a rush courtesy of Artemi Panarin.
The Rangers would earn a power play just a few minutes later after Aliaksei Protas was called for tripping. New York would make Protas pay for the infraction, as newly-acquired star Patrick Kane found the back of the net from near the point to double the Rangers' lead. At the end of the first period, the Rangers held a 19-9 advantage in shots on goal.
Down two goals after 20 minutes, the Capitals opened the second period with a more aggressive approach. The change earned Washington a power play opportunity just 1:24 into the frame, yet the Capitals were able to register just one shot on goal during the man advantage.
Less than one minute after the Rangers' penalty kill successfully ended, New York was able to add another tally to the scoreboard. Perfect tic-tac-toe passing from Kane and Vincent Trocheck led to a Jacob Trouba goal, who beat Kuemper's glove side in the top corner.
Despite the three-goal deficit, the Capitals continued to grind out the period and put the puck on net. Roughly two-thirds of the way through the frame, a perfect behind-the-back pass from T.J. Oshie found Matt Irwin, who fired the puck past Shesterkin to trim the Rangers' lead back to two. After being outshot 19-9 in the first period, the Capitals outshot New York 14-9 during the second 20-minute stretch -- yet still entered the locker room trailing by two goals.
The Capitals had a prime scoring chance early on in the third period -- a 4-on-3 opportunity for 1:22 -- but were unable to capitalize. Washington's best opportunity during the advantage came on a slap shot from Dylan Strome, but Shesterkin made an acrobatic glove save to protect the Rangers' two-goal lead.
Washington went back to the power play with 10:18 remaining in the period after Niko Mikkola was called for a hold. Just seconds after an unsuccessful power play concluded, Nic Dowd fired a rebound past Shesterkin to trim the Rangers' lead to just one. The goal was Dowd's 12th of the season, a new career-high.
Despite an aggressive push to end the final period, the Capitals were unable to find that decisive fourth goal to tie the game. The Rangers were able to seal the contest on an empty net goal with just over two minutes remaining for their first victory over the Capitals this year.
Tuesday night's loss marks the ninth straight game Washington has lost with Ovechkin out of the lineup, a streak dating back to last season. The Capitals are now 0-6 without their captain this year.
The Capitals and Rangers will meet for the fourth and final time this season on Sunday, April 2, at Capital One Arena -- a game the home side will almost certainly have to win to remain alive in the playoff race. The Capitals currently trail the Islanders by five points for the final Wild Card spot.