Capitals-Rangers Preview

The Associated Press

The New York Rangers have been on a roll since losing to the Washington Capitals last month.

The Capitals are going in the opposite direction.

The Rangers look to continue their hot stretch and capitalize on sputtering Washington in the finale of their season series Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.

New York (26-21-3) has dropped the last two meetings with the Capitals (22-18-8), both of which came during a 3-5-2 stretch. The Rangers lost 3-2 on the road in the most recent matchup Dec. 27.

They're 8-2-1 since after Saturday's 4-1 win at Ottawa. Derek Stepan had a season high-tying three points, including his first goal in 14 games.

"It's a big relief," said Stepan, who will play for the U.S. in next month's Olympics. "I don't know, for whatever reason throughout the year you go through these little dips and valleys and you have to find a way to just get through it.

"Confidence is a tricky thing in this sport. When you seem to find a little bit of it you have to try to build off that momentum."

The Capitals' confidence has likely taken a major blow during their second four-game losing streak of a 2-4-4 stretch since last facing the Rangers. They haven't endured a longer slide since dropping eight straight from Dec. 2-18, 2010.

Washington gave up the first three goals in a 5-1 defeat at Columbus on Friday.

"The biggest frustration is we weren't mentally ready," coach Adam Oates said.

Special teams have been a problem. The power play ranks among the best in the league with a 24.1-percent success rate, but it's wasted all 13 chances over the past five contests.

The Capitals' penalty kill has allowed eight goals on 26 chances in the last eight games.

"When you're not playing your best hockey, you need your penalty kill to be going at 100 percent. You gotta give yourself a chance," right wing Eric Fehr said. "It hasn't been working for us on the penalty kill. Whatever it is, they've been able to score it seems one or two goals every game.

"When your power play is not clicking, that's just a recipe for disaster."

Finding the net may not get any easier against Henrik Lundqvist, who is expected to start after backup Cam Talbot made 29 saves Saturday.

Lundqvist made 38 stops in a 1-0 win over Detroit on Thursday, giving him a 1.40 goals-against average and 4-1-0 record in his past five games. That's a dramatic improvement after he went 3-5-3 with a 3.43 GAA over the previous 11, drawing his status as the team's top goaltender into question.

That ugly stretch included a 4-1 home loss to Washington on Dec. 8. Lundqvist had shut out the Capitals in each of the three previous meetings, including the last two games of last season's opening-round playoff series.

Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's leader with 34 goals, hasn't scored in his last nine overall games against the Rangers and has failed to produce a point in his past eight. He came up empty and was a minus-2 Friday after scoring four goals and assisting on three others in the previous seven games.

Brad Richards, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello have all played a part in the Rangers' improved offensive performance of late.

Richards has four goals and five assists in the past eight games, while Zuccarello has five of each in 11 contests. They're tied for the team lead with 13 goals, while Nash has 12 after scoring five times in seven games.

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