With the three-day Christmas break in the rear-view mirror and the Rangers looking to extend a two-game winning streak, they visit the league's leading goal-scorer, Alex Ovechkin, and the Capitals in Washington Friday night, the first stop on a five-game road trip.
On the plus side for the Rangers, defenseman Marc Staal, who sustained a concussion from the Devils' Reid Boucher's shoulder to the jaw on Dec. 7, will make the trip, which spans into 2014 and includes stops in Tampa, Sunrise, Fla., Pittsburgh and Toronto. Staal has been skating without setbacks and presumably will practice with the club -- and possibly play -- on the road.
"He's one of our better defenders," coach Alain Vigneault said, and described how Staal's play allows him to use the Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi duo as a shutdown pair. "It permits Ryan to play such important minutes. It permits us to have two real good defenders playing against the other team's top line. Not to say that our other defensemen can't defend, but Marc does defend real well. He's got real good hockey sense, he's got a real good stick. Hopefully we'll have him back in the lineup soon."
Up first is the game with the Capitals, who are 19-14-4. It will be the third time the Metropolitan Division clubs have battled this season. Henrik Lundqvist, who is expected to start at Verizon Center for the Rangers (18-18-2), blanked the Capitals there, 2-0, on Oct. 16. The Caps toppled the Blueshirts, 4-1, at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 8, an early loss in the disappointing 3-4-2 homestand.
Lundqvist, who hasn't played since last Friday's 5-3 loss to the Islanders, needs to get back on track if the Rangers are to rise significantly above .500. The potent, rested Caps should be a challenge. The Caps have scored 117 goals in 37 games; the Rangers have 88 in 38.
Ovechkin, who didn't score in the first two games against the Rangers, has revved up his motor in advance of the Winter Olympics in his homeland, with 30 goals in 35 games. Twelve of them have come on the league's best power play, which is clicking at a commanding 25.9 percent. Special teams could be a factor in Washington: The Rangers are sixth on the penalty-kill and their power play has perked up, ranked 13th in the NHL at an 18.6-percent rate.
Notes & quotes: Captain Ryan Callahan, who sprained the MCL in his left knee on Dec. 10, is projected to be sidelined about two more weeks . . . The U.S. National team, with Rangers prospect Brady Skjei on defense, whipped the Czech Republic, 5-1, in their World Junior Championships opener in Sweden Thursday. Their next game is against Slovakia Saturday.