After a three-day break for the holidays, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals will restart the season with an important Metropolitan Division clash at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
That’s a bit of a redundancy, as five points separate the division’s top five teams, which includes the second-place Capitals (22-13-2) and fourth-place Rangers (19-13-4), who are just three points ahead of the sixth-place Carolina Hurricanes and seventh-place Pittsburgh Penguins.
Both teams spent their vacation with a bad taste in their mouths following regulation losses on Saturday.
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The Rangers were attempting to respond after a shootout loss in New Jersey two nights earlier, but they were overwhelmed for long stretches in a 3-2 home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Henrik Lundqvist stopped 34 shots and was the reason the game was close in the third period, but New York has allowed at least 35 shots in five straight contests.
“Whenever you have a little stretch like this, you always want to go into (the break) on a positive note,” Rangers forward Rick Nash said. “The last two games haven’t been our best. We will get a chance to recharge and come back against a very good Washington team.”
The Rangers have a somewhat daunting schedule coming. After they host Washington, they’ll play four of their next five games away from MSG, including the Winter Classic against the Buffalo Sabres at Citi Field. Coach Alain Vigneault said the pending holiday break and outdoor game on New Year’s Day haven’t been distractions for his team.
“With the game on January 1, there’s been a lot of outside distractions around our team,” Vigneault said. “I think our core group, our captains and assistants, have done a good job of keeping our guys grounded and playing the right way. I trust them on that to make sure our focus is where it needs to be.”
In their final game before the break, the Capitals did not seem to be focused in a 3-0 road loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Washington allowed three first-period goals and was unable to muster anything resembling an attack on its way to a second straight loss.
“I thought our defense real early were real sleepy back there,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said to the Washington Post. “Some of it’s on them, and some of it’s on our forwards. Our forwards didn’t give them a lot of support.”
In their only meeting this season, the Capitals defeated the Rangers 4-2 not long after Trotz told the media that New York defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk — a trade deadline acquisition for the Capitals last season — wasn’t a No. 1 defenseman. Shattenkirk has been lending credence to that idea lately, as he was benched late in the loss to the Devils on Thursday.
“That game I felt I had a point to prove and then the first shift it’s in the net,” Shattenkirk said to the New York Post last week, referring to Washington scoring right away in that meeting. “I felt that I was playing catch-up the rest of the way.”
Don’t expect any bad blood stemming from those comments to spill into this game Wednesday.
“But after the game, talking to him and with the explanation he gave me, I put it out of my mind,” Shattenkirk said to the Post. “It hasn’t stuck with me.”