Tonight’s game between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals will be one H – E double hockey sticks of a pucking game!
Not only have the New York Rangers been a middling team in recent seasons, but they’re the only club the Washington Capitals have managed to eliminate in the playoffs.
The sputtering Capitals, however, would much prefer to be in New York’s position now.
The Eastern Conference-leading Rangers look to extend their latest winning streak to six Wednesday night in Washington, where they begin a three-game road trip leading up to next week’s Winter Classic.
The Capitals won last season’s outdoor game 3-1 in Pittsburgh en route to a fourth consecutive Southeast Division title. They dispatched the Rangers in the first round of the postseason for the second time in three years – their only playoff series wins since 1998 – before being were swept by Tampa Bay in the East semifinals.
That seems to have set a tone for Washington’s surprisingly sour 2011-12 season, which has included the firing of coach Bruce Boudreau and tepid production from star Alex Ovechkin.
The two-time Hart Trophy winner scored Monday but went a 23rd consecutive game without multiple points in a 4-2 loss at Buffalo.
Washington (17-15-2) is 8-13-2 in that stretch and sits in 11th place in the East. A terrible start coming out of the Christmas break was the culprit Monday, as the Sabres chased Michal Neuvirth and took a 4-0 lead by the end of the first period.
“We have to put the blame on us,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We need to become a better team from the start of games.”
The Rangers (22-8-4) were plenty good throughout a 3-0 win over the New York Islanders on Monday, riding two goals from rookie Carl Hagelin and 28 saves from Henrik Lundqvist to their fifth straight victory.
They’ve outscored opponents 18-7 during their third win streak of at least this length since Oct. 31, which they’d love to carry to Florida on Friday and then to Philadelphia for Monday’s Winter Classic.
Coach John Tortorella, however, seems to want to keep the praise muted.
“We have some work to do as a club as far as our consistency,” Tortorella said. “We have some people chipping in, but we have to get some other guys going also.”
Among those contributing are Marian Gaborik, whose 22 goals match his total from all of his 62 games last season, and defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who has five points in his last three contests and ranks among the NHL leaders with a plus-25 rating.
New York figures to be even more formidable if it can get standout defenseman Marc Staal back in the lineup. The team leader in ice time each of the last two seasons hasn’t played in 2011-12 due to the lingering effects of a concussion, but he was cleared for contact this week.
In the meantime, players like Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman have helped pick up the slack.
“There is great depth in this organization,” Hagelin said. “There’s a lot of guys out and it shows that the organization is doing a great job preparing guys for this. It’s fun.”
It also helps having Lundqvist, 13-4-1 with a 1.77 goals-against average since the beginning of November. That includes a 6-3 victory at Washington on Nov. 25, just his sixth win in 15 career visits including postseason.
Ruslan Fedotenko scored twice and Ryan Callahan had three assists in that contest.
Considering Neuvirth struggled both that night and Monday, Tomas Vokoun could make his first start since Dec. 13 on Wednesday. Vokoun is 5-2-1 with a 1.72 GAA in his last eight outings against the Rangers.
New York Rangers – Martin Biron
Washington Capitals – Tomas Vokoun
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