Ask any expert prior to the start of the season who their frontrunner to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup would be and many of them would've said the Washington Capitals. Those same people would've also said the New York Rangers were a playoff-caliber team, but one that would occupy a middle seed.
Fast forward to nearly two-thirds of the way through the season and the script has been flipped: the Rangers (35-13-5) lead the East with 75 points, but the Capitals (28-21-5) are fighting for a playoff spot, one point out in ninth. Sunday afternoon, 12:30 p.m., these two squads clash at Madison Square Garden (NBC).
The Caps have had an up-and-down season. Just when you think they're ready to put together a strong stretch of games, they put up a few stinkers that remind us all that ever season writes a new storyline, and that they may not be as dangerous as they've been in the past. That's especially true with world-class center Nicklas Backstrom sidelined with a concussion and one of the better offensive blueliners in the game, Mike Green, out while recovering from sports hernia surgery. Alex Ovechkin leads the team -- finally -- with 43 points and 23 goals, yet Backstrom is still second with 42 ... in only 38 games played. The Caps rank 11th in the league in goals scored, and they are 14th in goals allowed. Washington is also at the bottom of the pack in shots for (27.5), slightly worse than the Rangers (28.5).
The Rangers are coming off a spirited game against the Philadelphia Flyers, but a win is always a good stepping stone for a back-to-back. The power play also showed a lot of life -- puck movement and precise passing generating a number of scoring chances. Because the Rangers are among the league's best in preventing goals -- a testament to their great goaltending and strong defensive play -- getting the power play going consistently would make them a deadly team. Brad Richards has had two straight strong games; his re-emergence would help settle the second line and power play. Marian Gaborik has been his All-Star self, Ryan Callahan has been a force and the young players have really contributed. Artem Anisimov has awoken from a slumber to put up five points in his last four games.
Washington will pose a tough test -- a rested team, looking to knock off the top team, but also vault themselves into playoff position. The Rangers are 1-1-0 against them this year, the latest a 4-1 uncharacteristic loss in which they did not execute the details.