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GAME DAY: Rangers Aim to Stay the Course vs. Caps

Homestand Rolls on with Metro Division Clash; World Juniors Teammates Square Off in Goal

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS vs. CAPITALS, 7 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
MSG Network, 98.7 ESPN

GAME DAY
The Rangers will by trying to get back in the win column on Thursday night, but feel that in important ways they've already gotten back on track.

"That's the way we've got to play," Brett Howden said when the subject of Tuesday's game against the St. Louis Blues came up. "Obviously I think against the Flyers we feel like we could have had better games, managed the game better in certain situations. But the game against St. Louis I thought we really got back to our game, and we can't get away from that. That's the type of game we want to play."

The Blueshirts will look to halt a three-game slide, which they haven't had in more than two months, on Thursday night when they take on a Washington Capitals team playing the tail end of a back-to-back and hanging onto its Metropolitan Division lead by its fingernails. The Rangers' 3-1 loss to St. Louis on Tuesday night was a physical and even affair against the defending champs, deciding by a third-period bounce off the skate of Alexandar Georgiev, who otherwise was flawless at even strength and will be back in goal Thursday to face the Caps.

This is the time of year when most teams will be doing some scoreboard watching, too, and the Rangers and Capitals are no exceptions: Carolina and the Islanders, the two teams right now standing between the Blueshirts and a playoff spot, are in action Thursday night; the Blue Jackets, right now in the No. 1 Wild Card spot, are idle after squandering a two-goal third-period lead and losing in OT on Wednesday night in Calgary. The Canes will play in Philadelphia, which won in Washington on Wednesday to pull within one point of the first-place Caps.

This also is the time of year when room on the rink seems to shrink, the games get tighter and take on, as Quinn said about Tuesday's match with the Blues, "a playoff feel."

"One of things we talked about today was, we cannot let one game affect the next. We really are that to that point in the season," the Head Coach said. "That being said, I think we all feel good about all the things we did in that game against St. Louis, other than the result. And one of the things that I think we understand is that one mistake is so important at this time of the season -- I mean, everybody's tightening up, the games are harder.

"We had some unbelievable chances -- you go back and watch that game. And we only got one goal but we had some great chances against a very heavy, hard team. And we didn't give up much. So we've got to be mentally tough enough to not let that loss get in our way tonight."

The one goal came off the stick of Mika Zibanejad, which really should come as no surprise at this point. The Rangers' top center has scored a goal in 14 of the last 18 games the Rangers have played; he has taken over the team lead with his career-high 33 this season, in just 53 games played.

His goal Tuesday, and his pair against the Flyers on Sunday, each came on power plays, and the Rangers for only the second time all season went back-to-back games without an even-strength goal.

"We know we can score it, we're not worried about that," said Howden, who scored on Friday in Philadelphia. "If we weren't getting the chances, then I think we'd be like, 'You know what, what do we got to do differently?' But we're getting the chances -- we're getting inside and we're getting some Grade As. They might be a bit harder to come by now, just with the way the season's winding down here, how tight the race is, but we're not worried about that and we're just going to keep playing the way we are."

The way Washington was playing the last time the Rangers laid eyes on them -- these teams haven't met since the Blueshirts' 4-1 win on Nov. 20 at MSG -- it was a decent bet they could run away with the Presidents' Trophy. The Capitals stood at 26-6-5 on the morning of Dec. 22, with an eight-point lead over the then-second-place Islanders, and 12 points over Philadelphia. The Caps are 14-14-1 since, and their lead atop the division has been trimmed to one. They have not won back-to-back games in regulation since a four-game winning streak surrounding January's All-Star break.

"If we keep doing that, there's not going to be a future for us," Garnet Hathaway told reporters after the Caps' 5-2 home-ice loss to the Flyers on Wednesday night. "We've got to figure some stuff out."

Hathaway's eighth goal of the year drew the Caps within 3-2 just before the end of Wednesday's second period, before the Flyers pulled away in a third period in which Washington came up empty in two power plays. They finished the night 0-for-5, and are 1-for-12 over their last five games.

"We know how good they are and how dominant they can be, and obviously the ability that they have to score, especially at any time on their power play," Howden said. "That's one thing we're going to be aware of, whenever you play them, trying to stay out of the box and not let them get any momentum off their power play."

The Caps' one power-play goal during that 1-for-12? That came from Alex Ovechkin, Sunday in Minnesota, on a one-timer from just above the left circle. With 45 goals in 2019-20, Ovechkin has become the eighth player in NHL history to surpass 700, and is on his way to his ninth career 50-goal season.

Georgiev and Ilya Samsonov -- teammates on the silver-winning Russian team at the 2016 World Juniors -- will oppose one another in the Garden nets on Thursday, with the Rangers facing Samsonov for the first time. The rookie goaltender's numbers have outstripped those of the veteran Braden Holtby this season, but after winning 11 straight decisions from Nov. 30 to Jan. 31, the 23-year-old in his last four starts is 0-4 with a 3.86 goals-against average and .877 save percentage.


PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS
33 Di Giuseppe -- 93 Zibanejad -- 89 Buchnevich
10 Panarin -- 16 Strome -- 17 Fast
21 Howden -- 72 Chytil -- 24 Kakko
48 Lemieux -- 14 McKegg -- 12 Gauthier

42 Smith -- 8 Trouba
55 Lindgren -- 23 Fox
18 Staal -- 77 DeAngelo

40 Georgiev
30 Lundqvist

CAPITALS
8 Ovechkin -- 92 Kuznetsov -- 43 Wilson
13 Vrana -- 19 Backstrom -- 74 Oshie
62 Hagelin -- 20 Eller -- 17 Kovalchuk
14 Panik -- 26 Dowd -- 21 Hathaway

4 Dillon -- 74 Carlson
9 Orlov -- 3 Jensen
34 Siegenthaler -- 33 Gudas

30 Samsonov
70 Holtby


NUMBERS GAME

Mika Zibanejad and Alex Ovechkin are tied for third in the League with 13 power-play goals -- Zibanejad in 188:55 of power-play ice time (72nd-most in NHL), Ovechkin in a League-leading 324:57.

Zibanejad has 31 points (16 goals) in the last 21 games.

The Rangers are 13-7 against the Metropolitan Division this season; Washington is 10-12-1.

The Blueshirts have scored power-play goals in six of their last nine games, and are 8-for-32 (25%) during the stretch. The Rangers rank fifth in the League for the season (23.6%); the Caps are 17th (19.8%).

Pavel Buchnevich has points in three straight games, and 15 points in his last 17.

The 36 faceoffs in the Rangers' game Tuesday against St. Louis were the second-fewest in a Ranger game since the NHL began tracking the stat in 1997-98; the fewest was the 34 faceoffs in Ottawa on Nov. 29, 2018. Tuesday's game was completed in 2 hours and 10 minutes.

Washington is 22-10-1 away from home -- their 22 road wins are second to Colorado's 23.

With 703 career goals, Ovechkin needs six more to pass Mike Gartner into seventh place in NHL history. Of Gartner's 708 goals in his Hall of Fame career, 173 came as a Ranger, 397 as a Capital.

With five more goals this season, Ovechkin would become the third player in League history with nine different 50-goal seasons, along with Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.

John Carlson leads all NHL defensemen with 73 points in 66 games, but has just four assists in his last nine. Tony DeAngelo is tied for fifth among blueliners with 49 points.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ryan Strome, whose assist Tuesday gave him 15 points (6-9--15) in the last 13 games, has 16 points in 23 career games against the Caps. He has faced Washington three times at Madison Square Garden and has points in each game (2-1--3).

Ilya Kovalchuk, acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline, has one assist in his four games as a Capital, after six goals (half of them game-winners) and 13 points in 22 games for the Canadiens. The 36-year-old, on his third team this season, has faced the Rangers only twice since returning to the NHL last year with the Kings, but has five points (1-4--5) in those two games.

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