Tonight may be a good time for the Washington Capitals to steal a win from the top team in the NHL's Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers.
As the stars of last years Winter Classic get set to take on this year's stars, the Rangers may be looking past Washington and possibly Florida on Friday, as they prepare for the festivities that await them in Philadelphia for this years Bridgestone Winter Classic.
The Capitals need the win badly, and can ill-afford to drop in the conference any further. I know it's hockey, and the regular season, but Washington is in what I call "an in season must win".
Washington is currently 11th in the east, three points behind Winnipeg for the eighth and final playoff spot.
However, if you have been watching HBO's 24/7 Rangers/Flyers these past few weeks, it is hard to imagine that head coach John Tortorella would let them look past a line change in practice much less the Capitals.
The Rangers won the first of four meetings with the Capitals, beating them 6-3 at Verizon Center on Nov. 25. The day after Thanksgiving contest marked the final home game of Coach Bruce Boudreau's tenure behind the Washington bench. Dale Hunter took over on November 29, and the Capitals are just 5-6-1 since.
The Rangers have gone in a different direction, and have currently won as many games in a row that the Caps have for their new head coach in total. The Blue Shirts won their fifth straight game Monday, shutting out their cross town rivals, the New York Islanders 3-0. Since the Caps and Rangers last met New York is 12-3-1, and currently lead their Winter Classic opponents, the Philadelphia Flyers by two points for the Atlantic division, and Eastern Conference lead.
LEADING THE WAY ON BROADWAY:
The Rangers have now registered at least one point in 21 of their last 26 games, going 19-5-2 during that span.
New York is led on offense by Marian Gaborik, who is tied for first in the NHL with 22 goals. The 29-year old Czech has 12 goals in his last 14 games and 7 in his last five. He enters the contest with a five-game goal/point streak, tallying seven goals, one assist and a plus-eight rating over the span.
Michael Del Zotto enters the contest with a three-game point streak (one goal, four assists over the span), and has tallied 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) in the last 15 games Del Zotto is tied for second in the NHL with a plus-25 rating.
BACKSTOPPING AT IT'S BEST:
As a franchise, the Rangers have always been well represented between the pipes. Such greats as Ed Giacomin, John Davidson, John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter have backstopped on Broadway. For the past seven seasons the Blueshirts have continued their tradition of tough net minders with Henrik Lundqvist.
King Henrik has held opponents to two or fewer goals in 17 games this season, and is 13-4-1 with a 1.77 GAA, .941 save percentage and two shutouts in his last 18 games. The best dressed player in the NHL ranks third in the NHL in save percentage (.936) is tied for third in GAA (1.95) and fourth in shutouts with three.
However, when Lundqvist needs a break, which isn’t often, Martin Biron takes over, and he has been more than adequate for New York.Biron has held opponents to two or fewer goals in six of his eight starts this season, and has posted a 2.00 GAA and .929 save percentage during his current four-game winning streak.
Biron will get the nod tonight, making his ninth start and tenth appearance of the season vs Washington. He is 11-8-3 lifertime vs. the Caps, with 2.50 GAA, and .913 save percentage.
SPECIAL TEAMS MATCHUP:
The Rangers are 12-58 (20.7%) with the man advantage in the last 16 games. New York’s penalty kill has held their opponent scoreless in seven of their last 10 games (28-32, 87.5% over the span), while tallying four shorthanded goals during the stretch. New York is tied for third in the NHL with five shorthanded goals.
The Blueshirts have posted a record of 14-1-2 in games when tallying a power play goal, and are 14-3-2 when holding their opponent scoreless on the power play.
The Capitals are 19th in the NHL on the power play, but third at home. The penalty kill reads virtually the same way as Washington is 17th overall when down a man, but fourth at home. Brooks Laich leads the team with four goals on the power play.
BIG GAME NEEDED FROM BIG TIME PLAYERS:
It is very likely that Dale Hunter will turn back to Tomas Vokoun to start tonights contest. That’s a good idea if you look at his lifetime numbers versus New York. Vokoun is 9-7-1-1 with 2.34 goals-against average and two shutouts in his career against the Rangers. Vokoun went 2-1-0 last season with a shutout and 1.34 goals-against average in three games against New York while with Florida.
The Great 8 needs to continue his offensive output of late. Ovie has three goals in his last five games, and has done well against the Rangers during his career. Ovechkin has recorded 25 points (14g-11a) in 25 career games against the Rangers, including a goal on Nov. 25 at Verizon Center.
According to media notes, the Capitals have held their opponents to under 30 shots in each of the last five games. This marks the first time since February 2011 that the Capitals have allowed less than 30 shots in five straight games (Feb. 12-20, 2011). In the past five contests, neither team has broken the 30-shot plateau, the first time in Capitals history that they have gone five or more games without either team firing 30 shots since a six-game streak from Feb. 27 –March 8, 2004.
THANK GOODNESS THE PLAYOFFS DON'T START TODAY:
The Rangers are 11-5-2 on the road this season, and winning tonight will not be easy, even at home where the Caps are 11-5-1. The Capitals are not playing good hockey, and have failed to put all phases of the game together since they started 9-2 this season.
The last time the Capitals weren't in a playoff spot this deep into the season was April 4, 2008. That was during their late-season surge in which they were able to win the South East division on the final day of the season from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Washington currently has no stability behind the bench, or on the ice. As reported last week, Dale Hunters contract is for just one season, and the players have to know that trades are coming if their performance doesn't improve.
The Capitals have been a good post-Christmas break team. Since the 2007 season, the Caps are 19-5 from December 26 through January 9th.
Beating a Rangers team that has not been No.1 overall in the east after Christmas since winning the Stanley Cup during the 93-94 season would a great way to start to things around for Ovechkin and company.