Battle Of Metro’s Best: Caps and Rangers minus the anxiety

Derek Stepan takes the winning shot to beat a sprawling Braden Holtby scoring at 11:24 of overtime to send the Rangers to the Conference Finals where they'll meet the Lightning. Game 1 is Saturday. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

Derek Stepan takes the winning shot to beat a sprawling Braden Holtby scoring at 11:24 of overtime to send the Rangers to the Conference Finals on May 13, 2015.
AP Photo by Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

When the Caps visit the Rangers at MSG tonight, it’ll be a much different scene from the last time they met on May 13. On that night, the stakes were higher with a trip to the Eastern Conference Final up for grabs. Like they had on May 8 in Game 5 stunning the Caps with Chris Kreider’s late goal in regulation and Ryan McDonagh’s overtime winner, the Blueshirts completed a comeback climbing out of a 3-1 deficit to win the second round series on Derek Stepan’s OT winner.

Fast forward five and a half months to November 3 for the first of five big match-ups between old Patrick Division rivals. Indeed, the Metro’s best square off minus the anxiety of last postseason. It’ll be a different feel when the first place Caps who come in at 8-2-0 visit the Blueshirts who are 7-2-2. It’s a chance to renew a “real rivalry” minus the hype from NBC about Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, who have met exactly once in the playoffs. A second round series the Crosby Pens won en route to a Stanley Cup in ’09.

Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist have faced each other five times in the postseason. In the first two meetings, it was Ovechkin and the Caps who had the advantage. The last three have gone to Lundqvist and the Rangers. Their experience and mental strength were the difference. Especially with less than two minutes left in their season in Game 5 when Stepan calmly set up Kreider for the game-tying goal. The rest is history.

None of it matters anymore. It’s a new season with both teams intent on one ultimate goal. Win the Stanley Cup. For the Rangers, that meant saying goodbye to emotional leader Martin St. Louis (retirement) and bidding adieu to popular Swede Carl Hagelin (traded to Anaheim). That’s the price of winning in a salary cap era that forces tough organizational decisions.

Thus far, new acquisition Viktor Stalberg has been a solid addition. He returns from a concussion tonight. Jarret Stoll has added another dependable face-off specialist who kills penalties. Rookie Oscar Lindberg has been a godsend with five goals and two helpers.

Perhaps the biggest addition is the return of a healthy Mats Zuccarello. The mighty mite’s play has been astonishing. Coming back from a brain contusion and hairline fracture in his skull, the pint sized Norwegian hasn’t missed a beat pacing the Rangers in scoring with seven goals and nine points. There’s no doubt his absence last May hurt. It’s too hard to conclude what might’ve been.

With Chris Kreider and Rick Nash struggling to finish in the early going, they have needed Zuccarello’s offense. Ditto Lindberg who has been a consistent performer on the third line. Derek Stepan (3-2-5) and Derick Brassard (3-5-8) are off to slow starts. Now that Alain Vigneault has reassembled the lines that had success last Spring, it should improve. In a 3-1 win over the Leafs on All Hallow’s Eve, the reunited trio of Brassard, Nash and Zuccarello combined for nine points resulting in Zucc’s first hat trick. Stepan is back with Kreider and Fast.

Defensively, they have been improving after a sluggish start. Dan Girardi struggled so mightily at the beginning that Vigneault shifted him to the third pair with Keith Yandle. Since, his play has gotten steadier. With Ovechkin back in town, not surprisingly Girardi finds himself reunited with McDonagh in an all too familiar match-up. That should be interesting.

Kevin Klein did a splendid job with McDonagh continuing to reward the coaching staff with solid play. He’ll slide down to the second pair and work with Marc Staal, whose overall game has picked up. As for Yandle, it’ll be rookie Dylan McIlrath who finally gets a second look.

“Dan Boyle, I mean, I have tremendous amount of respect for a guy who’s had that career,” Vigneault told Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “He hasn’t played bad, but he hasn’t played as well as we think, and he thinks he can play, he’s been given a good opportunity, so now it’s time to see Dylan.

“This is a big team and I think this could be a good game for Dylan.”

With Boyle sitting, Klein will play on the second power play unit with Yandle. Lindberg will get a look on that unit over J.T. Miller, who was shifted down to the fourth line with Stoll and Dominic Moore. Stalberg will get a look on the third line with Lindberg and Kevin Hayes.

While the Rangers make a couple of switches, the Caps have been rolling along thanks to the play of Evgeny Kuznetsov. The second-year Russian is off to a great start pacing Washington in scoring with 13 points (5-8-13). Instead of Nicklas Backstrom centering Ovechkin, it’s Kuznetsov who coach Barry Trotz has stuck with. Ovechkin has five goals and 12 points.

Both T.J. Oshie (4-4-8) and Justin Williams (2-6-8) have been as advertised. Oshie is on the top line while Williams works with Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. Jay Beagle centers a third line of Andre Burakovsky and Jason Chimera. Brooks Laich, Chandler Stephenson and Tom Wilson comprise the fourth line.

The defense isn’t much different except for Mike Green’s departure. Brooks Orpik and John Carlson are the top pair. Carlson is off to a good start with 10 points (2-8-10). Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen are the second pair. Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are the third pair. It’s a solid blueline.

Braden Holtby revisits the scene of a heartbreaking conclusion. So far, so good for him. He enters 6-2-0 with a 1.90 goals-against-average and a .924 save percentage. Accomplished counterpart Lundqvist has been terrific with a 5-2-2 mark, 1.87 GAA and .943 save percentage.

Whenever these teams meet, it’s always fun. Get ready because there are four more in the regular season. The Rangers host the first three and then the Caps the final two.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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