The New York Rangers look to win their first game as the Eastern Conference leaders Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. EST, Versus) against the Washington Capitals in the nation's capital. Obviously that sentence signifies the Blueshirts (22-8-4) have had a successful season to date, 34 games, yet despite their latest five-game winning streak, they aren't satisfied and seek consistency. The Capitals (17-15-2), on the other hand, have been out of sync this season, not winning more than two games in a row since their seven-game streak to begin the campaign.
It's safe to say Washington has been greatly underperforming compared to preseason expectations this season. Nicklas Backstrom is the only player producing at a point-per-game clip with 35 points, while Jason Chimera -- you read right -- leads the team with 13 goals. Alex Ovechkin has 25 points and 12 goals. Despite the struggles from him to light the lamp, the Caps still rank 10th in the league in goals for per game. That being said, all their lines have not been gelling fully thus far. Their main problem is the shoddy goaltending and defensive lapses that have resulted in the eighth-worst goals against per game in the league, averaging just over three.
The Rangers have gotten world-class goaltending from their duo in net, Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron, all season and rank second in the league in limiting goals with just over two per game. Credit the defense -- minus Marc Staal all season, Michael Sauer for several weeks, Jeff Woywitka and Steve Eminger -- for stepping up in those players' absences and playing a simple and stout game on the back end. New York ranks just above the Capitals in goals for per game with 2.97 and much of that is due to contributions from four lines.
Even with the goal-scoring woes from Ovechkin, the Rangers still need to hone in on stopping the Caps' most talented forwards and Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh will likely be paired against the top line frequently because of that. The Rangers won 6-3 against the Capitals on the road the day after Thanksgiving, and the recipe for success remains the same: work the offensive zone enough to wear down the Caps and limit the quick-strike offense, use their balanced attack to work deep in the zone to expose a group prone to defensive breakdowns and get shots on net against what looks to be Tomas Vokoun. The defense needs to keep Washington's dangerous offensive players to the outside, play physical and keep shooting lanes clear for Lundqvist.
In the Rangers' five-game winning streak, they've outscored their opponents 18-7. Washington has had an up-and-down month, with six losses in 11 games (points in seven), but remains an above-average home team: 11-5-1. It cannot be stressed enough that the Capitals are not a bunch to mess around with, and the Rangers need to start strongly and play as close to error-free hockey as possible to keep the Caps' confidence down early. This is the type of game where you don't want to give the Capitals on home ice any chance to feel "good" about themselves. Start quick and play the style that's been so successful all season, and there's a good chance that doesn't happen enough for Washington.