Rangers Return From Break To Host Caps

The Rangers and Capitals return from the mandatory three-day Christmas break to face one another tonight at Madison Square Garden for the second of four meetings of the regular season.

The Caps prevailed earlier this month in Washington by a 4-2 count. Washington sits in second place in the Metro Division with 46 points while the Rangers with 42 points reside in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. No playoff position is a given outside perhaps, the Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. This is a story that will continue to be repeated. The head-to-head matchups between Metro teams may very well determine who is in and who is out come playoff time.

[Watch Rangers-Red Wings Friday on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]

Ondrej Pavelec is expected to get the start in goal against the Capitals marking just his second appearance in the team’s last nine games. In his last two starts, Pavelec has been spectacular posting a .955 SV% stopping 85 of 89 opposition shots on goal.

This will allow Henrik Lundqvist a couple more days coming out of the break to rejuvenate for the battles ahead. Another reality of the depth of competition in the Metro is finding a way to get Pavelec into games given how close everything is and just how important Lundqvist has been in the recent run of success. All NHL teams need to get points from their second goaltender and the Rangers are no different.

[Carpiniello: Lundqvist PLaying Above & Beyond Expectaitons]

In his third game back after missing nine games due to a concussion, Mika Zibanejad fell victim to a bench shortening as the coaching staff tinkered with the lineup in an attempt to jump-start the offense going into the third period against Toronto. Zibanejad played just one shift that lasted 36 seconds in that final period as the Rangers ultimately fell to the Leafs 3-2. While any return from injury will fall prey to fits and starts, at the end of the day the Rangers top center needs to be better. As has been mentioned and will be reiterated as the season plays out, the success of this group will be largely predicated on the sum-of–it’s-parts. Zibanejad is one of the larger parts and more is needed.

Trying to light a fire for more consistent play Alain Vigneault has moved some bodies around in tonight’s lineup. Jesper Fast remains out due to injury so there will be no healthy scratches up front. Pavel Buchnevich’s move to the fourth line is likely the most surprising, and yet I would not judge the moves to be overly earth-shattering. Most times, switching and shuffling are intended to keep the players on their toes and paying attention. The season is long, there is a lot of hockey left and any coaching staff will constantly push and pull to keep everyone on board. Especially now as we head into the dog days of the season.

Alain Vigneault speaks to the media after a hard-fought game against the Maple Leafs at The Garden.

3 KEYS TO RANGERS-CAPITALS

1. Finding Rhythm Early

Both teams skated for the first time in three days this morning following the mandatory break. Three days may not seem like a lot but it is rare in the world of the NHL to have no exposure to a game or practice over that length of time during the regular season. Finding that game-groove early will be important.

[5 Facts to Know for Rangers-Capitals]

2. Protect “Pav”

Making the right play with the puck, boxing out Washington forwards and clearing loose pucks will make the night a little easier on Ondjei Pavelec. Something that hasn’t been the case in his last two starts where he single-handily delivered three-out-of-four points.

3. 42-22

Partnered tonight both Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith have found a bit of struggle in their games of recent. Smith needs to keep it simple while Shattenkirk needs to raise his compete level in order for their game to be where it should be and where the team needs it to be.

[Watch Rangers-Red Wings Friday on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]