They arrived at the NHL holiday break having played two of their best games in recent memory and now the Rangers (18-18-2, 38 pts) look to carry that momentum forward as they skate against the Washington Capitals (19-14-4, 42 pts) Friday night at the Verizon Center. The Rangers beat the Minnesota Wild 4-1 on Sunday and the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in the shootout prior to the break bringing an end to their nine-game homestand, finishing with a disappointing record of 3-4-2 record, but at least on a high note.
What the Rangers can feel best about---above and beyond the four points they earned in the final two games before the break--is that they played two of their best matches in quite some time Sunday and Monday, often dominating the opposition by controlling large swaths of play with superior puck posession, prime scoring chances, and stout defesnive play. While that had not been their calling card for much of their nine-game homestand, the final two games---and much of the final half of the homestand where they finished up 3-1-1 the final five games---were much more to the liking of head coach Alain Vigneault.
Of course Vigneault has a pretty major decision to make when the Rangers open up a five-game road trip in Washington on Friday: who will be his starting goaltender? The team's No. 1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist really struggled in the month of December, in particular on the just-completed homestand where he allowed three goals or more in seven straight starts while posting a 1-4-2 mark. Meanwhile back up Cam Talbot started both of the wins against the Wild and the Maple Leafs, lowering his goals against average to an incredible 1.60 in the process while raising his record to 8-2-0 in ten starts and 12 appearances this season.
Vigneault knows he must get Lundqvist back on top of his game, while at the same being aware that the Rangers need as many points as they can get right now, having squandered more than a few this month already. So does he go back with his No. 1, the recent Vezina Trophy winner, or does he ride the hot hand and come back with Talbot? It will be a decision not made known to reporters or fans until the morning skate on Friday.
The head coach was extremely pleased with all facets of his team's game the last two contests, though he would like to see some of his top guns break out offensively, for sure. The scoring chances have been there for the likes of Rick Nash---who had a game high six shots on Monday--and Brad Richards, but the goals have not been flowing like they were earlier in the season. Nash has one goal in his last nine games, while Richards has gone eight straight games without scoring a goal.
Others have stepped up, however, as evidenced by J.T. Miller's clutch score on Monday, Derek Dorsett with two points (including a goal) in his last three games, Derick Brassard with four points (1-3-4) in his last four outings, and Benoit Pouliot stepping up with a five-game point-scoring streak.
The lineup should remain the same as the Rangers play their first road game since a 3-1 win up in Buffalo on December 5th. Marc Staal (concussion) has resumed skating, but he is mot yet ready to rejoin the lineup. The Rangers enter play having won eight of their last ten road games, and are 10-8-0 this season away from Madison Square Garden.
The Capitals come into play winless in their last two games, and with just one victory in their last four (1-2-1). They sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division, just four points up on both the Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers. Their 12 home wins (12-8-1 at the Verizon Center) are tied for fourth most in the Eastern Conference.
Washington is power by Alex Ovechkin, who already has scored a league-best 30 goals in 37 games this season after leading the NHL with 32 goals in 48 games a year ago. Ovechkin had his four-game goal-scoring streak snapped two nights before Christmas, and he recently had a four-goal outburst against the Tampa Bay Lightning, his sixth multiple-goal effort this season. However in two games against the Rangers this season Ovechkin does not have a goal nor an assist.
After Friday's contest the Rangers will face the Lightning, the Panthers, the Penguins, and the Maple Leafs on this five-game trek. The road trip ends in Toronto on January 4th.