NEW YORK – The Capitals woke up in New York Sunday out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
A win by the Columbus Blue Jackets in Buffalo Saturday knocked Washington, which sits fifth in the Metropolitan Division with 52 points, out of the wild card equation. While they can’t catch the Rangers, who reside in third with 55 points, regardless of the outcome at Madison Square Garden Sunday night’s tilt offers an opportunity for the Capitals to atone for their poor performance in Columbus two nights earlier.
“They’re really close to us in the standings and these games start to get bigger and bigger as the year goes on,” John Carlson said. “Where our team is right now it certainly makes it a huge game for us.”
Carlson was one of several players following the 5-1 loss to the Blue Jackets to cite that Washington had not been mentally prepared for that contest. That’s something the Capitals can’t allow to continue given their current predicament having lost four straight and 11 of the last 15.
“This is our job, this is what we have to do in big games, every game. We need to show up and not go through the motions,” Carlson said. “I think there was a little bit of that as far as how our game went with details last game we do have a lot of good stuff to pull from. We’re a close team and we certainly need to overcome this.”
The Capitals played arguably their best game start-to-finish of the season when they captured a 4-1 win over the Rangers here on Dec. 8. Philipp Grubauer, who will start Sunday at Madison Square Garden, made 30 saves in that victory as Washington had crisp passes and moved cleanly out of its own zone up the ice to create offense.
They’re certainly comfortable playing in this pressure-packed venue and hope the familiar environment will help them snap out of this losing streak. The Rangers have steadily improved over the past month, though, and are 10-3-1 in their last 14 games heading into this matchup.
“It would be good for us to get in this atmosphere and get going again,” Jason Chimera said. “We need a big win to salvage some of this road trip for sure and we need points, you look at the standings now are so close….You’ve got to move [up the standings]. If you don’t move now you’re going to find yourself too far behind. No better night than tonight.”
>> Grubauer will make his 14th start in 20 games Sunday in New York. He’s faced the Rangers twice this season and is 2-0 having stopped a combined 68 of 71 shots (.958 save percentage, 1.50 GAA) in those outings.
As for the decision to go back to the 22-year-old rookie, Coach Adam Oates reiterated that his decision to pull Grubauer after Columbus scored three goals on 14 shots Friday was not a reflection of the netminder.
“I didn’t take him out for his play I took him out for our play,” Oates said. “He got a rest and he’s back.”
>> Oates is sticking with the new look line combinations he experimented with in Saturday’s practice in Columbus. When a team is struggling, going back to basics – like playing Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom together – isn’t a bad idea. The biggest change, however, is moving Chimera into the top six.
Oates said he wanted to add more speed to the top two lines to better counteract the Rangers’ fleet-footed forwards.
“They’ve got [Carl] Hagelin and [Chris] Kreider, two really fast guys,” Oates said. “That line’s going to see one of those [New York] lines so we’re going throw some speed back at them.”
>> Aaron Volpatti and Steve Oleksy will sit out as healthy scratches.
>> Projected lines for both teams.
Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Rick Nash
Carl Hagelin-Brad Richards-Ryan Callahan
Benoit Pouliot-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello
Brian Boyle-Dominic Moore-Daniel Carcillo
Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Marc Staal-Anton Stralman
Michael Del Zotto-John Moore
Henrik Lundqvist is expected to start. Cam Talbot will back up.