NEW YORK — For the past two weeks, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers are mirror images.
The Rangers won six in row until a 4-2 road loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday brought the streak to an end.
The Capitals won six straight before a 3-2 road shootout setback to the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday afternoon halted their run.
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So either the Rangers or the Capitals start a new win streak Sunday afternoon as the teams meet at Madison Square Garden in New York. Washington is 19-2-2 in its last 23 games and leads the NHL with 85 points.
Washington’s loss to Detroit was the result of a slow start following their five-day mandated break. It fell behind 2-0 before rallying to force overtime but much like many teams in the NHL this year dealing with the first game after a week off, they looked rusty and suffered a loss.
“In your head, you haven’t played for a week, and you’re getting used to thinking the game fast again,” Capitals forward Lars Eller said to the Washington Post. “Everybody was thinking a little too slow, especially in the first period, we were playing slow because we were kind of moving the puck slow. It wasn’t a lack of willingness. It was just too slow thinking, and then we looked slow. But it got better.”
“In the first period, we were trying to catch the train a little bit,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Coming off the break, you can try all you want, but you’ve got to play through it. We knew it going to be a little bit of a challenge, and it was.”
It won’t get any easier for the NHL’s top team Sunday as New York had two days off while Washington takes the ice less than 24 hours after losing at Joe Louis Arena.
When the Rangers lost Thursday, it was the same reason they’ve dropped most of their games this season — the defense. Henrik Lundqvist has been asked to do a lot this season but he couldn’t cover his teammates’ mistakes in Brooklyn. But while the defensemen have had problems all year, there hasn’t been much help from the forwards, either.
“There’s no doubt we have five guys standing around looking at two of their players making plays in front of our net,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault told the New York Post. “There’s no doubt that one put us behind the eight ball early in the third.”
“I feel like the third one is a killer,” Lundqvist told the Post of the short-handed goal that put the Rangers behind 3-1 early in the third period. “Power play, sometimes when you’re an extra man you might rely on someone else to do the job, and I think that’s what happened. We didn’t communicate enough in front of the net to sort it out, and that was difference.”
If the Rangers want to take advantage of a Capitals team that will either be rusty from a layoff or tired from playing the day before, they’ll need a more complete effort than the one they had Thursday. The good news for the Rangers is they’ve won four straight at home after struggling at MSG for more than a month, while Washington has a hard time scoring on the road.
In their last five home games, the Capitals have 27 goals. In their last five road games, they scored 12.
If the Rangers find themselves chasing the Capitals, who have the NHL’s best record (33-4-4) when scoring first, they probably won’t catch them.