NEW YORK -- They didn't want to actually come out and call it the biggest game of the season to date, but it's hard to find a game on the New York Rangers schedule that has been bigger than the one they will play Tuesday at Madison Square Garden against the Washington Capitals.
"It's hard to say, but it is an important game," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "We're playing a team that is right there with us."
The Capitals should feel the same way considering where each team is in the standings, the hot streak both teams have been on, the rivalry that has blossomed from four meetings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the past six seasons, and the fact that their three-day holiday break begins after the game is over.
Washington enters the Garden with a two-point lead on the Rangers for third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers have two games in hand, but Washington has one more regulation/overtime victory.
The Capitals have won three consecutive games and have points in nine straight (7-0-2); the Rangers have won six games in a row.
"These are two big points for both teams," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. "It's getting to that point now where you're kind of looking a little more where you're at, what teams you're chasing, and obviously these guys are one of the ones we're chasing so we'll try to do all we can here before the holiday break to get the job done."
It's also the first time New York and Washington will play this season, so it's the Rangers' first look at the Barry Trotz-led Capitals featuring defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. Niskanen and Orpik lost to the Rangers in the playoffs last season, when they were with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It's kind of odd to think that we're  games in and we haven't seen [the Capitals] yet because it seems like we see them all the time in past seasons," McDonagh said. "We're familiar with a lot of their players, but like us they've got some new guys on the back end. We're looking forward to the challenge."
Lundqvist will start for the Rangers after watching Cam Talbot pick up his third shutout of the season Sunday in a 1-0 win against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Lundqvist won the first five games of the Rangers current winning streak with a .939 save percentage and 1.56 goals-against average. He said the Rangers have had better focus in the defensive end in the past six games.
The Rangers have allowed eight goals with two shutouts, have gone 12-for-13 on the penalty kill and have allowed 25 shots on goal per game during the winning streak.
"In our end it comes down to making smart decisions, and I think that's something we've been doing during this streak," Lundqvist said. "Early on, we'd play well but maybe lost our focus here and there, but lately it's been there and it's been paying off. That said it hasn't been perfect, but we've been finding ways to win. A lot of times, that's what it comes down to."
Braden Holtby will start again for the Capitals. He made 28 saves in a 2-1 win against the Ottawa Senators on Monday at Verizon Center. This will be the first time this season that Trotz will start the same goalie on consecutive nights.
Holtby is 2-3-2 with a 3.66 goals-against average and .896 save percentage in the second game of a back-to-back in his career. Trotz, though, said among other things he factored the upcoming holiday break into his decision to start Holtby again.
"He's going pretty good too, by the way," Trotz said. "We're going to get a couple days rest, he's been going pretty good, and I haven't played [Justin Peters] in a while in a matchup with two teams that are sort of locked and going pretty well. I thought it wouldn't be fair to [Peters]. So I thought Braden would come right back. We gave him a little more work than I'd like to last night, but he's been a workhorse for us in terms of his conditioning so I think he'll be fine."
Trotz said that defenseman Nate Schmidt and forward Andre Burakovsky will play as well. Schmidt has been a healthy scratch the past two games after playing in the first 31. Burakovsky was scratched Monday after getting recalled from Hershey of the American Hockey League. He has 13 points in 26 games this season.
Here are the projected lineups:
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Jay Beagle
Marcus Johansson - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Troy Brouwer
Brooks Laich - Eric Fehr - Joel Ward
Jason Chimera - Andre Burakovsky - Michael Latta
Brooks Orpik - John Carlson
Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen
Nate Schmidt - Mike Green
Scratched: Jack Hillen, Tom Wilson
Injured: Aaron Volpatti (upper body), Dmitry Orlov (wrist), John Erskine (neck surgery)
Rick Nash - Derick Brassard - Mats Zuccarello
Chris Kreider - Derek Stepan - Martin St. Louis
Carl Hagelin - Kevin Hayes - J.T. Miller
Tanner Glass - Dominic Moore - Jesper Fast
Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Dan Boyle
Matt Hunwick - Kevin Klein
Scratched: Lee Stempniak, John Moore
Status report: Hillen will sit for Schmidt. Trotz did not say who would sit for Burakovsky, but it's possible it is Wilson, who was benched for stretches of the past two games. … Stempniak practiced Tuesday for the first time since he was isolated from the Rangers because of the mumps. Getting back in the lineup could be tough because Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he likes the chemistry that is building within the four lines.
Who's hot: Backstrom has three goals in the past two games, six goals in the past five games and 11 points in the past seven games. … Green has five points (one goal, four assists) in the past three games. … Stepan has four points (one goal, three assists) during a three-game point streak.