Tonight at the Phone Booth (aka Verizon Center, Washington DC) the Washington Capitals take on the Eastern Conference leading New York Rangers. Both teams won their last game on Thursday Night. The Caps defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in a nail biter; the Rangers soundly defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 in a game they dominated from start to finish. [ed note: I'll be watching the game on Comcast Sportsnet as my STH partner Tom grew up a ranger fan and he has both Ranger home games. Tom's loyalties may be divided, mine will be firmly with the Caps.] The Rangers have gotten off to a blistering start this season. After winning their first two games in Europe against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers have continued to romp through the first month of the season and have amassed 23 points while compiling an 11-4-1 record and sit firmly atop the Eastern Conference standings. The Washington Capitals have collected 14 points while compiling a 6-4-2 record and sit just in playoff range at eighth place in the conference. Tonight's game is a chance for the Capitals to make up two points on a conference foe and another step back to where many felt they would be before the season started - firmly in control of their own destiny this year.
This game is another real character test for the Capitals. The Caps longest winning streak so far is 3 games. Tonight would be the second in a row against a Conference opponent/foe; winning these sorts of games in November make March and April much less stressful. However, the Rangers are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games while the Caps are 5-3-2. Tonight's match-ups shape up as follows.
Forwards: If Sergei Federov plays the Caps lines will probably be similar to Thursday Night's which you'll recall were: 1) Ovechkin-Federov-Semin; 2)Laich-Backstrom-Kozlov; 3)Fleischmann-Nylander-Clark; 4) Brashear-Gordon-Bradley. That said as of yesterday both Federov and Shoanne Morrisonn are potential scratches in which case there will be a recall from Hershey. The recall is likley to be Tyler Sloan. Additionally, given the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin line was on the ice for the Caps last two goals Thursday, that could very well be the first line. There could also still be some more shuffling in lines 2 and 3, it wouldn't be too much of a streatch to see Eric Fehr in the lineupin which case 2/3 could look something like 2) Fleischmann-Nylander-Fehr, 3) Laich-Kozlov-Clark. The energy line looked pretty solid Thursday night and with the Rangers heaveyweights you'd have to bet that Brashear-Gordon-Bradley will be together once again. The Ranger's scoring is fairly balanced and as of their last game they have 5 forwards with 5 goals each. They also have five forwards and defenseman Dan Girardi with 10 or more points. The Caps have 3 forwards and Defenseman Mike Green with 4 or more goals, even though they have played 4 fewer games than the Rangers. They have 4 forwards and Mike Green with 8 or more points. The only key scoring threat on either team off his pace from last season is Alexander Ovechkin who continues to seem ready to breakout every game. Call this aspect of the game even right now, if Ovechkin continues to get more success like he did Thursday AND Tomas Fleischmann has one of the better outings he has shown himself capable of about 2/3rds of the time so far this season, the Caps might have a slight edge. If they don't you have to give a slight edge to the Rangers because of their balanced attack.
Defense: With or without Morrisonn in the lineup, you have to give the edge here to the Rangers. Call Wade Redden & Mike Green a wash; the Michal Rozsival - Tom Poti "matchup" goes at least slightly to Rozsival; then the comparisons start to really go to the Rangers as you get further dow the depth chart. Even if he's playing and playing well the Shoanne Morrisonn - Dmitri Kalinin comparison goes to Kalinin. Next down, the Jeff Schultz - Paul Mara is pretty even though in a tight big game you have to give the edge to Mara with his 9 seasons of experience. Next spot on the Caps depth chart is a toss-up between Milan Jurcina and John Erskine but let's take Erskine for comparative purposes since he was just resigned to $1.25M per year for each of the next two seasons. John Erskine - Dan Girardi has to go to the guy who was +/- 0 through 82 games last season as oppossed to the guy who was +1 through 51 games last season and who has never played more than 51 games in a season - slight advantage to Girardi. Finaly comparing Milan Jurcina - Marc Staal you have to call it a draw based on last season with a slight edge to Staal based on this season to date since Staal has 1 goal, 2 assists and is +/- +2 and Jurcina has 1 goal, 0 assists and is -3.
Goaltending: Regardless of who starts for the Caps, Jose Theodore or Brent Johnson, assuming Henrik Lundqvist starts for the Rangers, the edge goes to the Rangers. Though either Theodore or Johnson have the ability and talent to put together a game night performance where they basically "steal one" for their team Lundqvist, with 9 wins, a save percentage of 0.928 and a GAA of 2.00 so far this season seems to make games like that a habit whenever the Rangers are a little "flat". Of course the minute you make this prediction then Theodore or Johnson has one of those nights "steals the game" and Lundqvist looks like a mere mortal. If that happens it wouldn't break this Caps fan's heart at all.
Intangibles: Solidly goes to the Capitals. The Rock the Red crowd will be out in force for this weekend match up, though there will no doubt be a contingent of "blueshirt" fans as there are for all Caps - Rangers games. The Caps are coning off a confidence building win and generally raise their level of play against better teams in general and the Rangers, Devils, Flyers in particular.
Prediction: If the Caps keep their forecheck up towards the relentless level they are capable of and continue to get excellent 0.915 save percentage or higher goaltending, then the Caps win 3-2 in Overtime or the Shoot Out.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!