March 24 vs. New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 106.7 The Fan and Caps Radio Network
Washington Capitals (14-16-1)
New York Rangers (15-13-2)
The Capitals close out a season-long four-game road trip and finish off their season series with the New York Rangers on Sunday evening in Manhattan when they pay the second of two visits to Madison Square Garden this season to take on the Blueshirts.
Washington hits Broadway on the heels of two wins in as many nights over the Jets in Winnipeg, a pair of victories that push the Capitals back into the outskirts of the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
Including the road trip opener in Pittsburgh on Tuesday – a 2-1 loss to the Penguins – the Capitals have arguably just put together their best nine consecutive periods of hockey this season.
“I think the system is working,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “Everybody understands what they have to do, everybody knows their roles on the team. Sometimes we make mistakes that cost us points and cost us games. You can see last two games we played great. Of course we make some mistakes. But different guys stepped up and played well.”
In sweeping the back-to-back set of road games against the Jets in Winnipeg, the Caps may have salvaged their season. Losses in both would have left Washington 13 points behind the Jets in the Southeast Division. As it is, the Caps have pulled to within five points of front-running Winnipeg in the division chase.
Washington has also drawn to within three points of eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings with 17 games remaining.
“It think it’s just been gradual, but it’s coming,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. “The last two games here, you could tell. I guess it was kind of a do or die for us where we really realized it – these two games – we understood how far out we would be if we lost both of them and how close we could be if we won them. I think that’s where it changed.”
In scoring 10 goals in their two-game visit to Winnipeg this week, Washington has moved into the top ten in the NHL in goals per game. Going into Saturday’s slate of NHL activity, the Caps rank ninth in the league with an average of 2.87 tallies per tilt.
Ovechkin scored twice in Friday’s 6-1 win over the Jets, marking the fourth straight game in which he has scored. It’s the longest goal-scoring streak for the Capitals’ captain since this time last year when he visited the red light district in five consecutive games from March 18-25, 2012, scoring seven times during that five-game run.
Ovechkin’s 10 power-play goals lead the NHL and are only three shy of the total he amassed in 78 games last season. Ovechkin’s current rate of power-play scoring would translate to a total of 26 extra-man tallies over a full 82-game slate. His single-season career high is 22 power-play goals in 2007-08 when he finished with a career best 65 goals on the season.
Ovechkin and Peter Bondra (2000-01) share the Caps’ single-season mark for most power-play goals in a season at 22.
Washington has dropped each of its first two meetings with the Rangers this season, scoring an early goal in each before being blanked the rest of the way. The Caps have put together some strong starts in their recent games while New York has proven to be somewhat fragile early of late. Washington hopes to put together another strong start against the Blueshirts, but to follow up with the type of 60-minute game it has played on the trip to date.
“Those two games are over now,” says Caps center Mike Ribeiro. “You need to focus on the next one. If you want to have a chance to make the playoffs, you need to forget what we did [in Winnipeg] and really focus on the next one.
“The Rangers aren’t easy to play [in New York]. But at least we have an idea of how to play. The times that we won were when 20 guys showed up and was doing his job. That’s what you need from everyone, for everyone to show up and go wave after wave and tear down those [defenses].”
Expect Holtby to be in the nets for his fourth straight start. In nine starts thus far in the month of March, Holtby is 6-3 with two shutouts, a 1.88 GAA and a .941 save pct. He has allowed three or fewer goals in each of those nine starts.
Washington is still seeking its first road win outside of the Southeast Division this season. The Caps are 6-1 on the road against divisional foes, but they are 0-8-1 away from Verizon Center against the rest of the Eastern Conference.
It has only been two weeks since the Caps last faced the Rangers, losing a 4-1 decision to New York in a Sunday matinee at Verizon Center on March 10. Since then, the Rangers have a 2-4 record with one of those wins coming via the skills competition. New York is 0-for-12 on the power play in those six games (but 2-for-7 vs. the Caps this season), and it has surrendered a power play goal in four of those half dozen contests.
The Rangers have scored a grand total of seven goals in their last six games; they’ve allowed 15.
New York’s bid for a modest three-game winning streak went by the wayside on Thursday when the Florida Panthers and rookie goalie Jacob Markstrom humbled the Rangers by a 3-1 count on Broadway. The Blueshirts poured 45 shots on Markstrom, but only a Marian Gaborik shot late in the third period found its way over the goal line.
With an average of just 2.27 goals per game this season, the Rangers rank 29th in the NHL in scoring.
On Friday afternoon, the Rangers waived ex-Caps captain Jeff Halpern. Halpern, less than two months shy of his 37th birthday, has played in all 30 games for the Rangers this season. The right-handed center was averaging 9:09 per night in ice time and he had totaled one assist and eight penalty minutes. Halpern won 56.7% of his draws this season, second on the team and tops among all right-handed Rangers face-off men.
The Canadiens claimed Halpern off waivers from the Rangers on Saturday; Halpern now returns to Montreal where he spent the 2010-11 season. Halpern has played in 891 career NHL games, 507 of which came in a Capitals sweater.
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