The Rangers are coming
Head coach Bruce Boudreau seems to have righted a ship that was headed way off course. The Caps seem to be in the midst of their most consistent and productive stretch of this season.
It wasn't easy to get back to this point and one would have to only look back six short weeks ago to find the low point.
Back on Dec. 11, the Capitals had just lost their fifth game in a row at home to Colorado. Following the loss, the Caps boarded a train to play the Rangers the following night at Madison Square Garden.
Instead of breaking out of the losing streak, the Capitals suffered their worst defeat of the season, losing 7-0 to the Rangers, extending their losing streak to six games.
The loss was clearly the lowest point of the season for Washington as HBO's cameras captured a very quiet locker room; a locker room which seemed to be lost.
They have recovered and only time will tell what was learned from the adversity of that eight-game losing streak.
While the streak would reach eight games, it is becoming more apparent that this Capitals team is a far different team than the one that suffered that loss just six short weeks ago.
The Capitals since that game have managed to earn points in 14 of 17 games going 9-3-5. While the offense is just beginning to shows signs of life, the defense is present and accounted for.
In those 17 games, the Capitals have a very stingy goal-against average of just a 1.94 while only allowing 33 goals.
In the past three seasons, the Capitals have simply tried to outscore the opposition in a run-and-gun style of offense. They would play just enough defense, getting back occasionally to help their goalies.
Numbers do not lie and it is no coincidence that the Capitals have been an offensive minded organization under the leadership of owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee.
They have not been in the top 12 in the NHL in goals against since finishing fourth in the '99-'00 season.
Currently, the Caps are seventh in the NHL and climbing in goals-against surrendering just 2.51 per game. The Caps are ranked second in the NHL on the penalty kill. At 85.7 percent, they trail only the Penguins.
The Capitals have killed 20 of the opposition’s last 21 power play attempts.
Much of Washington's defensive success can be attributed to the fact the all of the players, Alex Ovechkin included, have bought into head coach Bruce Boudreau's new trapping style of defense.
The Caps are far more disciplined without the puck than they have been in years past and in fact, the Capitals are even seen blocking shots these days. Forwards and defenseman for that matter, could never get back in time to block shots under the run-and-gun style.
The Capitals blocked a season high 27 shots in their 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. When the Capitals block 16 or more shots in a game this season, they are 16-1-3.
If you don't think everyone is aboard with the new style of play, look at who is blocking shots these days. Mike Green led the way with four blocked shots Saturday night and Alex Ovechkin, who also scored a hat trick, blocked three shots.
Nick Backstrom had two and at least 12 Capitals blocked one shot.
While 25 year old Mike Green is the known young gun on the Caps blue line, having just been named an alternate captain on the All-Star team, a pair of even younger defensemen lead the Caps defense in the plus/minus category.
Twenty-one year old rookie defenseman John Carlson and 22-year-old Karl Alzner, who just played in his 100th NHL game, have stepped up an played a great defense while contributing offensively in the process.
Carlson is tied for second on the Capitals with a plus-14 and ranks third amongst all rookie NHL defensemen in plus/minus rating. Alzner is a plus-14 in his last 17 games and has improved to a plus-11 on the season, third on the team.
One would assume that Boudreau would be giving another young Caps player a chance to take a bow before the home crowd tonight.
Braden Holtby should start his third straight game in goal as he is coming off his best career effort in the NHL.
Holtby made 35 saves on Saturday, many in spectacular fashion allowing the Capitals to never trail on the road. In beating the Islanders and Maple Leafs away from DC, Holtby made a combined 60 saves allowing just two goals.
While the defense has been the one constant the Caps offense is re-emerging, notably the first line of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps snapped a 12-game streak of not scoring three or more goals on Saturday as Ovechkin recorded his 10th career hat trick.
Ovechkin (six) and Backstrom (five) have 11 points combined in the last three games. Backstrom has points in seven of his last eight games and has recorded an assist in 10 of his last 13 games.
While the Caps are in second place (62 points) in the Southeast and a fifth seed in the Eastern Conference they are only three points ahead the of the seventh-seeded Rangers who have one more win (29) than the Capitals.
The Rangers play in the tough Atlantic division with two of the NHL's best teams, the Flyers and Penguins. While the Rangers are 8-5 in division play, they are just 2-4 against their keystone state rivals.
Currently, the Rangers have 59 points and are 6-4 in their last 10 games. However, the blue shirts have won just two of their last five games.
Are the Capitals a better TEAM than last season?
Tonight's game is the last of their current three-game road trip in which the Rangers are 1-1. Their last game was a shootout win over the Atlanta Thrashers.
New York has been playing without several key forwards for a while now. Vinny Prospal, Ryan Callahan, Alex Frolov and Erik Christensen have all been out of the lineup for more than two weeks.
Adding salt to the wounds, they recently lost leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky with a stress fracture in his leg.
The Rangers are a stingy team led on the blue line led by Marc Staal. Staal is a plus-11 as he leads the sixth best goals-against team in the league. The Rangers give up just 2.40 goals per game and are led by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist is playing lights out, he is tied for the league lead with seven shutouts. Lundqvist is third in save pct. (.927), sixth in GAA (2.25) and tied for sixth in wins (21).
Lead by head coach John Tortorella, the Rangers are a disciplined hockey team. They have just 257 give aways compared to Washington's 426.
The two teams have split the season series to date, having played both games at Madison Square Garden.
Including tonight, the Capitals play five of their next seven games at home.