At 22-8-4, the New York Rangers are the current leaders of the Eastern Conference with 48 points, and have been winners of their last five games. Only two games remain on the schedule before the big showdown in Philadelphia when the Blueshirts will take on the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic, and one of those is tonight's match-up with the Washington Capitals. Normally, though, the Rangers enter these games against the Capitals as the underdogs, or at the very least, the team that's lower in the standings. That will be reversed when the two clubs clash at the Verizon Center tonight in the District of Columbia.
The Capitals have not had the season they wanted to this year, as they sit in eleventh place in the East at the moment, with only a 17-15-2 record. They've gone 5-4-1 in their last ten games (2-4 in their last six) and their most recent loss came on Monday against the Buffalo Sabres, in which they lost, 4-2. The Capitals have struggled with their starts this season, and that was blatantly obvious against the Sabers since they allowed all four goals in just the first period. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth was pulled midway through the opening period of that one after allowing three goals on just six shots. For that reason, Tomas Vokoun will get the start for the Caps tonight.
The last time these two teams met back in November, the Rangers embarrassed their opponent with a 6-3 routing of the Caps in a game that was one-sided for at least two out of three periods. At the time, the Rangers were also in the midst of a winning streak that had them playing some excellent hockey. Should we expect more of the same in tonight's rematch? Considering the way each of these teams have been playing as of late, it's certainly possible.
New York is on the rise, coming off four straight wins against rival teams with their most recent being a 3-0 blanking of the Islanders on Monday at Madison Square Garden. As I said in this morning's article, the Rangers are making their case as this year's surprise team in the NHL, and the case they've made so far is pretty damn good. Nothing seems to phase this team to the point where they're thrown off their game. They bring the same effort, skill and battle level to the ice each and every night, and it's given them bountiful amounts of success to this point in the season.
We will see some lineup changes for tonight's game, however. First off, Jeff Woywitka will be returning to the lineup on defense after missing a couple weeks with a foot injury. That means rookie Tim Erixon will be a healthy scratch, and according to head coach John Tortorella, will be returned to the Connecticut Whale of the AHL if all six defensemen come out of tonight's game healthy. Erixon did a tremendous job on the last pairing during his most recent stint with the team, but he's much better off in the AHL where he will be getting much more ice time.
Also, Marty Biron will get the start in goal tonight to give Henrik Lundqvist some additional rest before the Panthers on Friday and then the WInter Classic game next week. I really like the way the coaching staff has spaced out Lundqvist's starts this season, especially with the team in first place in the East right now. Think about it; if the Rangers continue to play this well in the second half of the season and are serious contenders for the Stanley Cup in the playoffs, Lundqvist will be more than preserved.
New York Rangers Lineup