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Five things to watch when Capitals face Rangers

by Evan Sporer / Washington Capitals

The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals have played in four of the past six Stanley Cup Playoffs, with each team winning two series. Those series have gone a combined 26 of 28 possible games, with 18 of those games decided by one goal.

This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA, SN1) will go a long way in determining if the Rangers and Capitals play again in this year's playoffs.

With the Rangers in second place in the Metropolitan Division and the Capitals in fourth, another matchup this spring is within reach. Each made a move prior to the NHL Trade Deadline to bolster its roster down the stretch.

Washington acquired forward Curtis Glencross from the Calgary Flames, and he's made an immediate impact with two goals and four points in his three games since the trade, skating on a line with Jay Beagle and Troy Brouwer. The Capitals need an offensive threat who isn't Alex Ovechkin and as of now Glencross appears to be delivering.

In New York, defenseman Keith Yandle was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes. He's without a point in four games with the Rangers while being paired mostly with Kevin Klein at even strength. He's also seen time on the Rangers' top power-play unit. No matter how or where he's deployed, the Rangers are expecting Yandle to provide an offensive spark from the blue line and help them orchestrate their transition game with his passing skills and vision.

Here are five things to watch between the Rangers and Capitals:

1. Containing Ovechkin

When the Rangers and Capitals play, it usually means Ovechkin sees most of his shifts against Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. In 36 career regular-season games against the Rangers, Ovechkin has 18 goals. Compare that to some other divisional rivals (28 goals in 39 games against the Pittsburgh Penguins; 26 in 37 games against the New York Islanders; and 29 in 37 games against the Philadelphia Flyers) and the Rangers have done relatively well for themselves.

With this game being played at Verizon Center, Capitals coach Barry Trotz will have a chance to keep Ovechkin away from McDonagh and Girardi with the last change. This is where Rangers coach Alain Vigneault decision to configure his second- and third-pairing defensemen becomes key.

Yandle didn't play against top competition in Arizona. Should Yandle continue to ride shotgun with Klein, he'll likely continue to see sheltered minutes. If it's not McDonagh and Girardi, Vigneault would prefer to get Marc Staal and Dan Boyle out there. Stopping Ovechkin is one of the biggest keys for any team facing Washington.

2. Talbot on a back-to-back

All signs point to goaltender Cam Talbot playing the second half of the back-to-back after making 29 saves in a 2-1 road win against the New York Islanders on Tuesday. Talbot has started 16 of the Rangers' past 17 games, including each of the past eight, and has faced new levels of work since Henrik Lundqvist was injured in late January.

Talbot has played each game of a back-to-back once since taking over as the starter. That came on Feb. 7-8, when he and the Rangers lost in regulation at the Nashville Predators and in overtime at home to the Dallas Stars the next day. Those were the second and third starts of Talbot's current stretch. Fatigue is much more of a factor now.

This also isn't a back-to-back against any two teams. Talbot will be put to the test should he start against Washington following another divisional showdown.

3. Forward depth

When the Rangers made their run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, depth at forward was chief among the reasons for their success. With the regular season winding down, the Rangers are finding that depth while the Capitals are tinkering with their fourth line.

Trotz has gone with a fourth line of Jason Chimera, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson in the past two games. The early returns have not been great, but with Glencross in the mix, Trotz is still trying to figure out what works. Kuznetsov is more of a playmaker and could provide some offense to the bottom of the Capitals' lineup.

The Rangers made a depth move in acquiring forward James Sheppard prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. Playing heavy defensive minutes against the Jonathan Toews line in Chicago, the line of Sheppard, Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast held its own. Tanner Glass was back in the lineup in place of Sheppard on Tuesday; however, should Vigneault elect to use Sheppard, who's more capable of driving possession and more accountable on defense than Glass, the Rangers can lean on their depth once again down the stretch.

4. Ailing Capitals

Nicklas Backstrom was sent home from practice Tuesday because he was sick but Trotz expects him to play Wednesday. No single player on the Capitals roster is more important to Ovechkin's success than Backstrom. He has assisted on 29 of Ovechkin's 44 goals this season, including assists on 15 of Ovechkin's 20 power-play goals. With the kind of shooter Ovechkin is, Backstrom's passing is integral in getting him the puck in scoring positions. Ovechkin is a dynamic offensive player, but he needs Backstrom to be at his full effectiveness.

The Capitals could also be without defensemen Mike Green (upper body) and Brooks Orpik (lower body). Green's status should be more clear by Wednesday, according to Trotz. Orpik will be a game-time decision.

5. Special teams

The Capitals' power play has been successful of late; the Rangers' power play has not. Special teams can always be an x-factor when two very evenly matched teams face one another.

Washington has scored a power-play goal in each of its past four games, going 5-for-8 during that stretch. The Rangers are four for their last 35 on the power play and 1-for-10 since acquiring Yandle.

When these two teams played earlier this season, the Rangers had a season-high seven power-play opportunities and scored twice. The Capitals scored on one of their five chances but had trouble building any momentum because of all the penalties they were taking. The Capitals have the second-best power play in the League (24.9 percent) and must continue their recent success when they face the Rangers.

Follow Evan Sporer on Twitter: @ev_sporer

Author: Evan Sporer | Staff Writer

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