Game #5 Preview: Rangers visit Capitals

Braden Holtby, Rick Nash

Rick Nash and the Rangers offense has gone missing against Braden Holtby and the Caps. AP Photo by Alex Brandon/Getty Images

Tonight, the Rangers bring their 2-2-0 record to the always loud Verizon Center to face the Capitals. Since losing to the Crosby-less Penguins in a shootout on Opening Night, the Caps have won three in a row and lead the Metropolitan Division with a 3-0-1 mark, which ties them in points (7) with Pittsburgh, who’s played one more game.

The Caps have only allowed six goals in four games. They have yet to explode offensively but have outscored opponents 11-6. Seven of those goals came in consecutive wins over the Avalanche and Panthers. That included captain Alexander Ovechkin’s game-winner in a 4-2 win at Florida when he was able to redirect a very slow Matt Niskanen shot in the third period. It was only his second of the season. You know his eyes will light up when he sees Henrik Lundqvist.

Most of Washington’s top scorers are out slowly. Evgeny Kuznetsov finally lit the lamp. The third-year center who struggled mightily down the stretch last season and was unable to score in the playoffs. Justin Williams tallied his first in Thursday’s win for his 250th career goal. The three-time Stanley Cup winner has always been a clutch performer.

Nicklas Backstrom has three assists so far. Marcus Johansson leads the Caps in scoring with four points (1-3-4). Andre Burakovsky has scored twice and could be a breakout candidate. T.J. Oshie also has two markers in a contract year. Daniel Winnik tallied twice in a home win over the Islanders. Jason Chimera now plays for the Isles. Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson are still around. Lars Eller is without a point.

John Carlson anchors the blue line. After a disappointing World Cup for Team USA, he’s off to a slow start with an assist. He and Niskanen log a ton of minutes in all situations. Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov remain underrated performers who can be counted on. Brooks Orpik is still around but doesn’t play as much. He is managed along with Nate Schmidt.

Overall, it’s basically the same team from last year. The Caps are very good. Featuring Vezina winner Braden Holtby, who’s off to a 2-0-0 start allowing five goals on 80 shots, they remain one of the East’s top contenders.

It’s always an interesting match-up. Hopefully for the Rangers, we won’t have to hear that annoying goal siren too much. Between that and those loathsome horns during play, it really makes me hate the Caps.

The Rangers are still without Pavel Buchnevich and Dan Girardi. Buchnevich didn’t even make the trip. Girardi still isn’t ready. What does that mean for Sunday when they host the Coyotes? That’s for Alain Vigneault to answer along with whether Lundqvist gets back-to-back starts or rests tomorrow for Antti Raanta.

Vigneault has been pleased with his team’s play. They could easily be 4-0. However, strong performances from back ups Carter Hutton and Jimmy Howard prevented it. Instead, they enter play .500 with a chance to get back on track against one of the league’s best teams. I like the fact they’re getting tested early.

Certainly, offense isn’t the problem. In their two wins, the Blueshirts have scored 12 goals, including a seven-goal eruption against the Sharks. In their two losses, they’ve been held to three. Hot goalies kept them from scoring which explains the 2-2-0 record.

Chris Kreider leads them in scoring with seven points (3-4-7). He notched an assist in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Detroit extending his season opening point streak to four. His 20 shots also pace the team. Kreider and newcomer Mika Zibanejad have formed great chemistry on the top line. Zibanejad is second in points with five (2-3-5) while cleaning up on face-offs (62.1 percent).

After working with Buchnevich the first two games before back spasms sidelined him, they have teamed with Rick Nash. Nash recorded his lone goal in the third game. He might be tried with Derek Stepan and Jimmy Vesey. If that’s the case, Mats Zuccarello gets a shot with Zibanejad and Kreider.

The other lines remain the same. Kevin Hayes centering J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast while Josh Jooris works with Brandon Pirri and Michael Grabner. I’d like to see Miller get a shot with Stepan and Vesey. Or maybe eventually see how Vesey looks with Hayes.

The defense will have Nick Holden paired with Ryan McDonagh. That means Holden will see plenty of Ovechkin with McDonagh more familiar with The Great Eight. Personally, I’d rather see Kevin Klein with McDonagh. But Vigneault prefers him with Marc Staal, who’s looked better so far. Until proven otherwise, Brady Skjei remains with the better skating Adam Clendening, who continues to see power play time.

As for Dylan McIlrath, the former 2010 first round pick finds himself the odd man out. It’s sad because he showed that he could be a solid NHL regular last year. This is all about the stubborn Vigneault’s preference. So, McIlrath got into one game and took a double minor for roughing after daring to stand up for Raanta. He didn’t see a shift in the third period. A game they nearly blew to San Jose.

I have plenty more to say about McIlrath and how wrong Vigneault is. For some fans, it falls on deaf ears. They just can’t admit the truth. Mostly due to McIlrath going ahead of “Vlad Tarasenko.” A player the Rangers were never picking at number 10. They wanted to go D. So, it was either Cam Fowler or McIlrath, who they went off the board for.

I’ve had it up to here with the fair weather fans who keep mentioning Tarasenko. They were going defenseman. Wake the hell up. The Rangers weren’t the only team to miss the St. Louis Russian sniper. Teflon GMs. That’s what I call them.

It isn’t about Big Mac not being capable. He is. This is about Vigneault and his style. He likes skating D. Skjei has a bright future and is better than almost anyone not named McDonagh. But he’s still a rookie. So, there will be ups and downs. I’d much prefer McIlrath over Girardi.

Tonight’s face off is at 7:08 in D.C. Lundqvist vs Holtby. It should be fun.

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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