The exceptional play of backup Cam Talbot during Henrik Lundqvist’s absence has afforded the New York Rangers a chance to ease their star goaltender back into it.
After Lundqvist was a bit rusty in his return to the ice, Talbot will be between the pipes Sunday when the Rangers continue battling for the Presidents’ Trophy in a divisional matchup against the Washington Capitals.
Lundqvist returned Saturday after missing seven weeks with a throat injury and had a rough first period in Boston, giving up three goals on 14 shots. The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner settled down after that and finished with 26 saves, but the Rangers (47-20-7) fell 4-2 for their second loss in three games.
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"Tough start," said Lundqvist, who hadn’t played since Feb. 2. "Obviously not the start I was looking for."
Rick Nash reached the 40-goal plateau for the third time in his career and first since 2008-09 with Columbus, but New York managed just 18 shots after the first period.
The Rangers have allowed four goals in each of their previous two losses after allowing no more than two over an 8-1-1 stretch.
"We weren’t making plays, we weren’t playing together and doing the things we normally do to other teams," defenseman Marc Staal said.
With 101 points, the Rangers are neck-and-neck with Montreal for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and trail both Anaheim (103) and Nashville (102) in the race for home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Rangers’ status atop the Metropolitan Division is much more comfortable. They lead both the Islanders and Pittsburgh by eight points and have an edge of 11 on the Capitals (40-25-10), who hold the first wild-card position in the conference.
In two earlier matchups this season, both Lundqvist and Talbot earned victories against the Capitals. Lundqvist stopped 30 shots in a 4-2 victory at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 23 before Talbot made 28 saves in a 3-1 road win March 11 while Lundqvist was out.
That performance by Talbot was part of an outstanding 23-game stint as the club’s No. 1 in which he went 16-4-3 with a 2.16 goals-against average. His only other start against the Capitals ended in a 3-2 road loss on Dec. 27, 2013. Talbot had 31 saves in that one.
Washington had won four of five before losing 4-3 to the Predators on Saturday. While Nashville clinched a playoff spot, the defeat allowed Boston, which holds the second wild card, to pull within three points of the Capitals.
They’ve managed to maintain their spot despite a slump by superstar Alex Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 47 goals but was held without one for the sixth time in seven games.
Minus the two goals he scored at Minnesota on March 19, Ovechkin has managed just one assist in that span. Linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson have also been quiet with one combined point over the last five games.
"He’s got to get skating again," coach Barry Trotz said of Ovechkin. "Again, it’s not just him. I look at that whole line … that line has to get skating again. For years they’ve been called on to provide us offense and they’re just in a bit of a dry spell."
Washington, which has lost two in a row and five of eight at MSG, has also gone 0 for 11 on the power play over its previous four.
Braden Holtby, who could make his 19th consecutive start Sunday, has lost seven of eight against the Rangers – including playoffs – while posting a 3.00 GAA.