The last time the Rangers (7-5-1, 15 pts) and Washington Capitals (5-8-1, 11 pts) met, the date was May 12, 2012 and the Blueshirts skated to a thrilling 2-1 victory at Madison Square Garden in the decisive Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series. Now these two rivals hook up for the first time in 2013 when the Rangers host the Caps again at The Garden on Sunday night, with both teams looking to recapture some of the passion and high-end play displayed in that exciting playoff series of a year ago.
The Rangers have earned points in a season-high four-straight games, posting a 3-0-1 record in that span after Thursday's 4-3 shootout defeat to the Islanders. However the Blueshirts have blown multiple-goal leads in each of their last two games---an early 2-0 lead to the Isles and a late third-period 3-0 lead to the Bruins on Tuesday---giving the team some pause, despite taking three out of a possible four points in these two games.
On a more positive note, Brian Boyle returned to the Rangers lineup Thursday and played a robust physical game---leading the team with eight hits, and a much more assertive offensive game after being scratched the previous three contests. Boyle was even moved up to the second line in the third period after the struggling Brad Richards was benched by John Tortorella. The key for Boyle will be to follow up Thursday's strong showing with another on Sunday, and then play on a consistent basis thereafter.
Carl Hagelin, who has four goals in his previous three games, and Rick Nash bring three-game point streaks into Sunday's contest. While Nash has been the Blueshirts most consistent player all season, Hagelin has burst forth the past two weeks with a jolt of energy felt throughout the lineup. And as of late, the goals have been finding their way in, as Hagelin now ranks second on the team with five goals.
Nash did not practice on Saturday---Tortorella called it "just a body maintenance day"---but questions abounded when Chris Kreider was recalled from the Connecticut Whale just one day after being sent down. It seems likley that Kreider was recalled as a precaution in case Nash is unable to play for whatever reason on Sunday. Nash (3-8-11) is tied for the team lead in points (11) with Marian Gaborik (7-4-11) who scored his team-leading seventh goal on Thursday against the Isles.
After a night off on Thursday, Henrik Lundqvist returns between the pipes for the Rangers on Sunday, making his 12th start out of 14 games this season. In his career Lundqvist is 13-7-2 against the Caps, posting three shutouts, but just a .901 save percentage in 22 games vs. Washington.
Last season the Blueshirts split their four regular-season games with the Capitals, including a split of the pair played on Garden ice. The Rangers beat Washington 3-2 at MSG on February 12, 2012 before the Capitals exacted revenge with a 4-1 road win at The Garden on April 7th.
After a brutal start coming out of the lockout, the Caps have won a season-high three games in a row coming into play tonight. The turnaround began with a 5-0 Braden Holtby-backstopped shutout over the Panthers last Sunday, then continued with a 6-5 overtime win over the Panthers three nights later with Troy Brouwer netting the OT winner, and then stretched to three consecutive wins with a 4-3 victory Thursday night in Tampa Bay.
Despite the recent improved play, Washington sits at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, and their team defense---allowing an average of 3.50 goals per game--ranks 28th in the 30-team National Hockey League. In addition, superstar forward Alex Ovechkin has been wildy inconsistent, and currently owns a -7 plus/minus rating. However he has ratcheted up his offense lately, posting seven points (3-4-7) in his last six games.
Veteran Mike Ribeiro is off to a great start, leading the team with 17 points (5-12-17) in 14 games, while rugged Joel Ward has been a pleasant surprise with 11 points (5-6-11) in the fist 14 games.
Will there be any carrover from last year's playoffs for either team? And can the Rangers lock things down again, and pick up the crucial two points this evening? Sahre your game predictions below.