Looking to break a three-game losing streak in which they have been outscored by an aggregate 20-5, the Rangers (1-4-0, 2 pts) play their first divisional contest of the season Wednesday night when they skate against the Washington Capitals (2-4-0, 4 pts) at the Verizon Center. Though this is Washington's first season in the newly configured Metropolitan Division with the Rangers, these two teams have faced off in intensely competitive playoff series the past two springs, both of which lasted seven games. In 2012 the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals by edging the Caps in seven, and then in 2013 the Rangers erased a three-games-to-two deficit and shut out the Capitals in Games Six and Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
However that is all in the past--though there is no question the Caps carry extra motivation from losing those two series--and the Rangers are focused instead on righting their ship, something the players and coaches believe the team did in part during Saturday's 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues. Though the result was not what the Rangers wanted, there were far fewer breakdowns in the Rangers' all-around game, plus the team played with a much higher level of intensity. Add to the mix that Ryan Callahan broke through with a pair of power play goals, Brad Richards continued his resurgance with a goal and an assist, and Henrik Lundqvist came off the bench to play a stellar third period, and there clearly were positives, despite it being a third straight loss.
Not everything was positive coming out of Saturday's loss, and earlier this week the Rangers decided to waive veteran gaolie Martin Biron---who struggled mightily against the Blues after a rough first relief outing in San Jose last Tuesday---and veteran winger Arron Asham---who has appeared in three of the first five games, but was a healthy scratch in St. Louis. To take their place on the roster the Rangers promoted 26 year-old rookie goalie Cam Talbot to back up Lundqvist, as well as 20 year-old former first rounder J.T. Miller who scored four goals in three games with the Hartford Wolf Pack prior to his recall.
Miller skated with Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett at practice Tuesday, though should see time on the team's second power play unit, as well. Derick Brassard will center the top line with Richards and Callahan on the wings; Derek Stepan is in between Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot---both of whom remain scoreless through five games this season; and Brian Boyle skates with Taylor Pyatt and Jesper Fast. With Rick Nash on IR, the Rangers right now have only 12 forwards on their roster.
Not only must the Rangers play Wednesday without their top offensive forward in Nash, they may be without their top offensive defenseman, too, because Michael Del Zotto is suffering from the flu. Del Zotto missed practice Tuesday and did not travel to Washington, though head coach Alain Vigneault held out the possibility that he could join the team on Wednesday---though that seems unlikely. If Del Zotto can not play, Justin Falk would be inserted into the lineup. Falk has played in just one game---and played only 5:18---last Saturday in St. Louis when Vigneault dressed seven defensemen.
Washington also has struggled out of the gate this season, losing four of their first five games before a solid 4-2 home-ice win over the Edmonton Oilers Monday night. Nicklas Backstrom, who has eight points in six games already this year, picked up three assists on Monday, while Alex Ovechkin (6-3-9 through six games) notched a goal and an assist and struggling goaltender Braden Holtby earned his first win of the season. Holtby and Michal Neuvirth both have goals against averages north of 3.30 as the Caps have surrendered 22 goals through six games.
The Rangers will have to be very mindful of not putting the Caps on the power play so often Wednesday. Where the Rangers were the least penalized team in the NHL a year ago, they are now ranked 24th in the league--with Dorsett leading the NHL in penalty minutes--and the Capitals power play has been lethal, converting on 8 of 22 chances already. Special teams coud most definitely be the tipping point in who wins this game at the Verizon Center.