By Sean Hartnett
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As the NHL’s holiday break nears, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers are Metropolitan Division rivals going in opposite directions.
With a 7-3 trouncing of the Blueshirts at the Garden on Sunday, the Caps are rolling on a 12-1-1 run and lead the Eastern Conference with a 24-6-2 record.
Even while playing three games fewer than the second-place Rangers, Washington has already opened an eight-point division lead. Mired in a 3-9-2 slump, the Rangers can’t seem to get out of their own way – continuing to be doomed by the team-wide issues that have plagued them all season.
The Blueshirts came unraveled after taking a 3-1 lead into the first intermission. It all started with their loose defensive coverage. How many times did they leave all-world sniper Alex Ovechkin unmanned to hover in his favorite spot near the left circle? Justin Williams was repeatedly gifted prime net-front real estate. Doing so is like hand-delivering prey to a cobra and the Caps have that killer instinct.
“Once we got up 5-3, we still wanted to push forward,” Williams said. “We still wanted to play hard; we didn’t want to put it in cruise control. We still wanted to go and go.”
Henrik Lundqvist and 24-year-old backup Magnus Hellberg were each hung out to dry by missed assignments, poor puck management and the Rangers losing the majority of puck races. Lundqvist appears to be trying to overcompensate for his teammates’ foibles. He’s playing overly aggressive due to the lack of help in front of him.
The Blueshirts have allowed 31 goals over their past six games. In five of six games, they’ve surrendered goals within two minutes of each other. Lundqvist, who was replaced at the start of the third period, said he understands the challenge in front of himself and his teammates.
“Right now it’s a test for us mentally to turn this around,” he said. “We are trying to do the right thing out there, working hard, trying to talk about things. It’s definitely challenging right now to get everything going in the right direction.”
The Rangers are a team searching for answers. It comes in stark contrast to a Caps team brimming with confidence.
“We have the ability to come back with anybody, we’re not scared of anybody,” Williams said. “We feel we’re one of the better teams in the league and we’re going to try to prove it throughout the year.”
Seeking a spark, Alain Vigneault shuffled his forward lines for Sunday’s game. The Rangers’ head coach has tried anything and everything to put a jolt into this team, including handing power play responsibilities to Tanner Glass and Jesper Fast, of all people.
“It’s my job to work with our players and our coaching staff to find solutions,” Vigneault said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Right-handed defensemen Kevin Klein (strained oblique) could return to the lineup for Tuesday’s home game against the Anaheim Ducks.
“He’s definitely a good defenseman for us,” Vigneault said. “At this time, he’s not available. You gotta work with the guys that are available.”
At the moment, the Rangers’ defensive pairings are unbalanced and exposed. Captain Ryan McDonagh has been forced to shift to the right side while paired with Marc Staal. If Klein can play Tuesday, McDonagh would move back to his natural left side with Klein on his right on the top pairing. While Klein is without question a solidifying presence, the Rangers must get back to playing structured defense and recapturing their swagger.
“From my standpoint, I know that this group knows how to defend and can defend,” Vigneault said. “They’ve obviously proved it in the past; we are obviously not doing it at this point in time. We have to regroup, stick with one another, and get back at it on Tuesday. I am not sure that it’s as much mental as it is execution, it’s probably a combination of both. There’s no doubt in my mind that the answer is in that dressing room.”
Execution has been the key word all season long. The Rangers need to prove they’re a better team than the one that continues to tussle with the same mistakes.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey