Both the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils are making serious pushes in the Eastern Conference. The two clubs will meet tonight in New Jersey looking to pick up another two points before the holiday break.
The Devils are currently tied for eighth in the East with 37 points, two more than the Capitals, thanks to a recent four-game winning streak that ended with a loss to the Rangers on Tuesday. New Jersey is fourth in the Atlantic Division but has crept within five points of third-place Pittsburgh.
Washington, meanwhile, has won four of its last six and sits third in the Southeast Division, two back of second-place Winnipeg and eight points behind first-place Florida.
The Capitals improved to 5-5 under new head coach Dale Hunter with a 4-1 triumph over the visiting Predators on Tuesday. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom scored first-period goals and Alexander Semin and Troy Brouwer shut the door with tallies in the third period.
"I think the first period set the tone for the entire game," said Hunter, who took over for a fired Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28. "We took the play to them early. We should have scored more in the second but their goalie was good. But we got a couple in the third."
Washington killed off all five of Nashville's power-play chances and is a perfect 14-for-14 on the penalty kill over the past four games. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth had been a big part of that and he stopped 20 shots on Tuesday while making a season-high third straight start.
Neuvirth, who has made 11 starts to Tomas Vokoun's 21 this year, has given up just three goals over his recent string of starts, shutting out the Jets in the first outing of that stretch on Dec. 15 with 26 saves.
"He's been solid," Brouwer said of Neuvirth. "He's been making big saves for us. It makes it easy for us to play in front of him. We know that if we do make a mistake, he's going to be there with a save to bail us out."
Playing without leading scorer Patrik Elias on Tuesday due to illness, the Devils couldn't get the big save and lost a 4-1 decision to the Rangers. Travis Zajac had New Jersey's lone goal, his first in three games this year after missing the first 30 due to an Achilles tendon injury.
Martin Brodeur made 17 saves on 20 shots as New Jersey had its longest winning streak of the season snapped.
"I thought our effort was good, we played hard and had a good start," said New Jersey forward Zach Parise. "It wasn't a question of effort cause we were ready, just came out on the other end of the scoresheet tonight."
Elias, who became the franchise's all-time leading goal scorer on Saturday, leads the Devils with 13 goals and 29 points. He returned to practice on Thursday and is probable to suit up tonight.
The Devils and Capitals split a home-and-home set on Nov. 11-12, with Washington earning a victory in New Jersey to open the series before losing a shootout decision at home the following the night.
The Caps have won five of the past seven meetings overall and two straight in New Jersey.