Saturday Roundup/Gamenight: Rangers @ Caps

[AP Preview - WashingtonCaps.com Preview]

No more Jagr. No more Avery. Can you really still hate the Rangers?

You're damn right you can (and if you need a new reason why, here are a couple).

The Rangers come into tonight's game with the most wins in the Eastern Conference, a 4-1-1 record on the road, a miserly 2.12 team goals against average (thanks to an eye-popping 90.3% effective penalty kill), a born-again Nikolai Zherdev and a brick wall named Henrik Lundqvist (who is 5-1-0/1.82/.936 in his last six games).

Against that stout team defense, the Caps will ice a squad that has scored four goals in its last three games (three of which came Thursday night) and has scored one goal or less in four of its last seven outings, partially the result of a sputtering power play that has gone 4-for-39 (10.3%) over the last nine games (the Rangers power play, by the way, had gone five-for-50 over the ten game span leading up to their last match, in which they lit the lamp three times with the extra man).

But as the Caps' power play efficiency has tanked, the penalty killing has excelled, to the tune of 89.7% effective over the last seven games (35-for-39). Put another way, over the last 65:47 of shorthanded ice time (slightly more than a full game plus a full overtime session), the Caps have only surrendered four goals - the team has a .931 save percentage and a 3.65 GAA (which is 0.21 higher than Jose Theodore's overall GAA on the season) while down a man (or two) over the past seven games.

That's some pretty impressive penalty killing. Perhaps even more impressive? Tonight's likely Caps starting netminder's numbers as a starter this season - Brent Johnson is 2-0-2/1.93/.936 in the games for which he's been on the ice at the opening puck drop.

So, on paper at least, we're looking at what should be a defensive battle where a single mistake can be the difference between two points and a night wasted... which means the game will be anything but low-scoring. Bet the over and hope for two points.

Random Nicklas Backstrom Thought:

Last season, Nicklas Backstrom played 15 games before finally scoring his first NHL goal in game number 16. During those first 15 games (playing mostly on the wing), he fired just thirteen shots on goal.

This season, through a dozen games, Nick has no goals, but has taken 28 shots on goal (including four in each of his past two games). It's only a matter of time before he finds the back of the net, of course, but even if he was scoring at the same shooting percentage rate as he did under Bruce Boudreau last year, he'd only have 2.78 goals so far. So really, even with that goose egg, he's not that far off where we might reasonably expect him to be in terms of goals (assists are another story - he "should" have at least nine by now based on last year's post-Hanlon rate, but there's another significant factor impacting that equation at present).

Elsewhere 'Round the Rinks:

Per NHL Director of Corporate Communications Michael DiLorenzo's Twittering, the Caps experienced a 74% year-over-year increase in merchandise sales at NHL.com in October, which was the fifth-largest increase in the League (Chicago was up a whopping 234%!). Alex Ovechkin had the second-best selling jersey for the month (behind Alex Semin's buddy), with Mike Richards, Henrik Lundqvist and Evgeni Malkin rounding out the top five. Good stuff, and h/t to KK to tipping me off to DiLorenzo's feed.... Speaking of Ovechkin and Malkin, with weeks having passed since their last meeting and months to go before they meet again, you'd think their rivalry wouldn't be a hot topic for Steel City journos. You'd be wrong.... Down on the farm, Simeon Varlamov picked up his first pro shutout (and Oskar Osala scored yet another goal) for Hershey and Joel Broda had a natural hat trick for Moose Jaw.... For those of you wondering about Jamie Heward, here's an update.

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