By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers always seem to find a way to kick their game up a notch when Alex Ovechkin and the Caps enter MSG. From the game’s opening face-off on Tuesday, Ovechkin attempted to play like a one-man wrecking ball. Washington’s captain was buzzing around all night and threw a game-high eight hits. In the early goings, Ovechkin decked Rick Nash and trucked Derick Brassard after the whistle.

Immediately, pint-sized winger Mats Zuccarello confronted Ovechkin. Alternate captain Dan Girardi was next to jump into the scrum. The presence of Ovechkin and the Caps always seems to stoke the Rangers’ fire. This game had all the snarl that one would expect from Metropolitan Division rivals that have frequently met on the playoff stage.

Ovechkin certainly played an in-your-face game and the Rangers gave it right back. Key defensemen Marc Staal, Girardi and Ryan McDonagh seem to relish the opportunity of shutting down Ovechkin.

“We’ve played him a ton over the years,” Staal said. “So, it’s just kind of a natural thing that comes up when you’re playing a guy of that talent. When he’s physical and he’s in the game, he’s one of the toughest to stop. You take it as a challenge and it’s always a lot of fun playing against him.”

Although Ovechkin scored a beauty of a snipe on a third-period power play, the trio minimized Ovechkin’s opportunities and took away his space. As the Rangers ponder whether Staal is deserving of a lucrative extension near six years and $6 million per year, they should examine footage of him making life difficult for Ovechkin over the years.

Encounters with Ovechkin bring the best out of the Rangers. That was certainly the case on Tuesday as the Rangers defeated the Caps 4-2 to extend their winning streak to seven games. The Rangers are rolling heading into the Christmas break and leapfrogged the Caps to move into third place in the Metropolitan Division. While the Rangers and the Caps are even with 40 points, the Blueshirts have two games in hand.

Brassard put in a standout performance, notching three assists and winning 60 percent of his face-offs, going 9-for-15. The 27-year-old center is playing the most consistent hockey of his life. Brassard has recorded two goals and eight assists over the past eight games. He’s not just excelling offensively. Brassard has become a dependable face-off winner and a much-improved two-way player. Teammates have described Brassard as a “hockey nerd” who constantly examines his own game and studies tape. Clearly, Brassard’s dedication is paying off.

Assembling a definitive three stars from the game was near impossible. Girardi, McDonagh and Staal did their thing by containing Ovechkin. Aside from giving up a third-period softie to Evgeny Kuznetsov, Henrik Lundqvist was at his very best. King Henrik calmed things down when the Caps started the third period by outshooting the Rangers 15 to 2.

“Henrik stood tall for us,” center Derek Stepan said. “I think AV said the other day, you don’t go anywhere without good goaltending. Our goaltending has been phenomenal.”

Lundqvist was just as eager to praise his teammates.

“It got really intense,” Lundqvist said. “My guys stepped up big near the end.”

Nash continued his Hart Trophy-caliber play by scoring a hat trick. No. 61 has been near unstoppable. He is excelling in the transition game and has been a handful for opponents around the net. Martin St. Louis scored a vital second-period power-play goal and Zuccarello impressed by assisting twice and not backing down against the physical Caps.

RANGERS RECOGNIZE THE IMPROVEMENT IN BOYLE’S GAME

Defenseman Dan Boyle entered Tuesday’s game on a seven-game pointless drought. After agreeing to a two-year, $9 million contract in the offseason, Boyle’s first season with the Blueshirts has been stop-start due to a broken hand and flu-like symptoms.

During Sunday’s victory over Carolina, Boyle dropped his right glove and immediately protected his exposed right hand behind his body. Prior to Tuesday’s game, Boyle admitted that his right hand still isn’t 100 percent.

Three points in 16 games isn’t the kind of production Rangers fans expected from a player renowned for his creativity. There have been flashes of Boyle rediscovering his power-play mastery. Despite Boyle’s tough start, the Rangers believe that the real Boyle is going to show up sooner rather than later. Head coach Alain Vigneault stressed patience following Tuesday’s victory.

“I thought he was a little bit better tonight,” Vigneault said. “He had a real nice play on Marty’s first goal. Like anything else, it’s going to take a little bit of time here. He’s been with the same team for six years. He’s getting used to our group, getting used to his new teammates. He’s going to be fine.”

Staal spoke highly of Boyle’s performance against the Caps.

“He makes great plays on the puck,” Staal said. “He’s really poised on the power play. He made some great plays tonight. It’s great that we have him, and he delivered it tonight.”

Boyle assisted an open St. Louis on the Rangers’ second power play at 1:03 into the second period. He continued to spark up good power-play chemistry and continued to work the same play with St. Louis in man-advantage situations. You get the feeling that Boyle is very close to fully breaking out and becoming the guy who finally solves the Rangers’ long-standing power-play mediocrity.

The Rangers are off between Dec. 24 and Dec. 26. They will renew their rivalry with the Devils on Saturday night at MSG. The holiday roster freeze will be lifted at midnight on Dec. 27.

Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and a warm holiday season.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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