01.00CET | Washington Capitals - New York Rangers
Game Link(s): Read: "Ice Hockey Today! 17th Nov 2009"
Two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference square off tonight at Madison Square Garden when the Rangers host the Washington Capitals.
Washington currently sits in second place in the conference with 28 points (12-4-4), five ahead of the fifth-place Rangers (11-8-1). Both teams are battling -- or have battled -- injuries to significant players as of late.
Chris Drury remains out of the Rangers’ lineup due to a concussion, and Brandon Dubinsky is sidelined with a broken right hand. Washington, meanwhile, has played its previous six games without Alex Ovechkin, its superstar winger who has been nursing an “upper body strain” believed to be a shoulder injury.
However the Capitals quite possibly will have Ovechkin back in the lineup tonight, just as the Atlanta Thrashers had their star Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk return from an injury against the Blueshirts at The Garden last Thursday.
“You have to know when and where he is out on the ice,” defenseman Matt Gilroy said of Ovechkin. “It’s the same as with Kovalchuk the other night, where we didn’t know until warmups that he was coming to play. It’s just the way it is. They’re the best in the world those guys, and it’s just a pleasure to be able to play against them.”
Washington has been able to post a 4-2-0 record in the games Ovechkin has missed, scoring 22 goals in that span and posting a 42.9 percent success rate (6-for-14) on the power play, even without their top offensive threat.
That is why Rangers head coach John Tortorella is of the mind not to match lines with the Capitals tonight. He believes that his club can’t focus solely on Ovechkin when the Caps boast so many other great offensive talents on their other lines.
“We’re playing a team (tonight) that’s pretty much right on through their lineup a solid club,” said Tortorella. “Obviously there are a couple of really good players they do have. That puts the responsibility on our top guys.”
The Rangers’ “top guys”, as the head coach refers to them, have thrived all season, so far, with large sums of ice-time.
Marian Gaborik, who is second in the league with 25 points and just one shy of the NHL lead in goals (shared by Ovechkin, Anze Kopitar, and Dany Heatley) with 13, regularly plays well more than 20 minutes per night for the Rangers, and has played four straight games of over 24 minutes.
And Gaborik’s linemate, Vinny Prospal, is the league’s 17th leading scorer with 21 points while playing just as many minutes as Gaborik. In fact, two games ago Prospal logged a season-high 27:52 worth of ice time against Atlanta, an extremely high number for a forward.
“I’m playing my top guys,” said Tortorella. “I don’t want to lose the opportunity to play our top guys. I know when you play them 28 or 29 minutes that’s a little much, but these guys can play. I think our top guys are in great shape.”
Gaborik and Prospal delivered for the Rangers again Saturday afternoon in Ottawa. With the Rangers trailing 1-0 and being badly outshot midway through the second period, Gaborik and Prospal teamed up on a 2-on-1 shorthanded break which resulted in Prospal’s fifth goal of the season -- and first shorthanded tally in 894 career games.
While Henrik Lundqvist’s brilliant 35-save effort and PA Parenteau’s decisive goal in the seventh round of the shootout played huge roles in the Rangers’ 2-1 win on Saturday, the fact is that the Rangers do not even earn a point in the contest if not for the timely -- and pretty -- play from their top two forwards.
“It was a huge relief for us,” Prospal said of Saturday’s win, which snapped a brief two-game skid for the Rangers. “With the exception of the (Atlanta) game we have been playing fairly well, but weren’t getting any results.”
One area that Prospal, Tortorella, and the rest of the team are well aware needs to be cleaned up is the amount of penalties the Rangers are taking. On Saturday against the Senators, the Rangers were called for four consecutive penalties between the 19:35 mark of the first period and 15:24 of the second. As a result, Ottawa largely dominated that stretch of the game, and if not for a brilliant outing by Lundqvist, as well as terrific work by the penalty killing unit, the Rangers could very well have lost the game.
“Some parts of our game, like staying out of the penalty box and killing a lot of time, that’s what gives other teams momentum,” said Prospal. “That’s why in the second period (on Saturday) we were under the fire. Too many penalties.”
Playing against a Capitals team this evening which has scored at least one power-play goal in nine of its last ten games, it will be imperative that the Rangers stay out of the penalty box.
It is also imperative for the Rangers to receive secondary scoring contributions from others not named Gaborik and Prospal. One line to watch tonight will be that of Christopher Higgins centering Ales Kotalik and Parenteau. Tortorella said after Monday’s practice that he thought that threesome really came on in the second half of Saturday’s game, their first as a forward line combination this season.
Tortorella had special praise for Higgins, in particular. Higgins, who has played very little center in his career, turned in a solid effort in the middle on Saturday, and was especially strong in the third period, when he came close twice to winning the game in the final minutes.
Following tonight’s important clash against the Capitals, the Rangers are off until Saturday, when they host the Florida Panthers at MSG.
The future is bright the future is red - Scouseman