WASHINGTON - It's pretty easy to make the case that Alex Ovechkin is one of the NHL's best players, no matter what the all-star voting says.
And now his Washington Capitals are the best they've ever been through 40 games.
On the day he was left out of the Eastern Conference starting lineup for hockey's midseason showcase, Ovechkin scored a short-handed goal with a half-minute left in the second period to break a tie and lift Washington past the New York Rangers 2-1 Saturday night.
"It's hard for everyone in the league to defend against him," Rangers goalie Steve Valiquette said. "We did the best we could."
Defenceman Mike Green scored on a power play, and Jose Theodore made 21 saves, helping the Capitals extend their winning streak to a season-high six games and improve to 26-11-3, the best start in franchise history.
Before the game, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters he thinks "it's dumb" Ovechkin wasn't selected to start in the all-star game, and he told his players about the chance to break the team's 40-game mark.
"He's all about breaking records," Green said about Boudreau. "It was a must-win tonight."
The Southeast Division-leading Capitals are an East-best 17-1-1 at home, and they have won 11 of their past 12 games overall to move up to No. 2 in the conference.
Ovechkin has 13 goals in that 12-game stretch. He entered Saturday second in the league in goals (26) and points (52) and added to those totals while teammate Matt Bradley was in the penalty box for a delay-of-game penalty that Boudreau protested vigorously.
Dave Steckel sent a short pass over to Ovechkin near centre ice, and the player known as Alex the Great did the rest. Pressured by two Rangers, Ovechkin crossed the blue line and let fly a wrister across his body that clipped a defenceman's stick on the way to sailing by Valiquette, who was making only his ninth appearance this season.
"It was the end of the shift. I wanted to just shoot the puck and go to change, but it was kind of a lucky goal," said Ovechkin, whose last short-handed score came in March 2006.
The goal was the league-worst 12th short-handed tally allowed this season by the Rangers; no other team had let in more than eight entering Saturday.
"Teams recognize we have trouble with that," coach Tom Renney said, "and they attack."
Ovechkin displayed the sort of individual excellence that prompted Boudreau to wonder why his left wing finished sixth among East forwards in the final all-star tally announced Saturday.
While Ovechkin said that outcome "doesn't matter," his teammates - and opponents - were surprised.
"It's pretty unbelievable," Steckel said. "He's the best player in the league."
Said Renney: "There's a flaw in the system."
Asked before the game how he planned to deal with Ovechkin, New York's coach said with a laugh, "Kill him?"
Still, the Rangers did a good job of holding Ovechkin in check early, and the visitors went ahead 1-0 about 10 minutes into the second period when Petr Prucha scored for the second game in a row.
Less than 1 1/2 minutes later, though, Green scored his 10th goal - eighth on a power play - off a pass from Alexander Semin to tie it. Semin, returning after six games out with a back injury, was ejected in the third period after fighting with Marc Staal.
"He stood up for himself, so good for him," Steckel said about Semin. "The guy scores 30 goals a year and you see him go to the net hard and get in a fight after - it riles the boys quite a bit."
Notes: The Rangers' No. 1 goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, did not start because he was "a little under the weather," Renney said. ... In the teams' previous meeting, at New York on Dec. 23, the Capitals trailed 4-0 but won 5-4 in overtime, the start of Theodore's five-game winning streak. ... The capacity crowd of 18,277 was Washington's fifth consecutive sellout and ninth this season, more than all of last season.