The Rangers have won five in a row for the third time this season and they enter tonight as the top seed in the East with 48 points. New York hasn't been first in the conference this late into a season since March 15, 1996.
New York earned its most recent victory Monday against the Islanders, blanking its regional rival by a 3-0 score. Henrik Lundqvist stopped 28 shots for his third shutout of the season as the Rangers downed the visiting Isles at Madison Square Garden.
Carl Hagelin scored twice and Marian Gaborik notched his league-leading 22nd goal of the season for the Rangers. Gaborik is tied for the NHL lead with Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who scored twice on Tuesday to give him 22 markers on the year.
Tonight marks the start of a three-game road trip for the Rangers, who are 11-5-2 as the visiting club this year. New York will visit Florida this Friday before battling the Flyers on Monday in the Winter Classic at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park.
The Rangers have dominated the Capitals recently, winning four straight in the series and scoring 21 times over that stretch. New York posted a 6-3 victory in D.C. on Nov. 25 in the first of four meetings between the clubs this year. The Rangers have also taken three in a row and four of the last five encounters in the nation's capital.
While the Rangers are sitting atop the East, the Capitals, who came into this season as heavy favorites to win the Southeast Division, wouldn't even be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Washington finished as the top seed in the East in each of the previous two seasons, but is currently 11th in the conference with 36 points.
The Capitals have lost two straight and are now just 5-6-1 since Dale Hunter took over as head coach for the fired Bruce Boudreau. Washington's most recent loss came Monday in a 4-2 setback at Buffalo, as the Sabres led 4-0 after the first period and then held on for the win.
Washington did not exactly get off to a flying start. Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik was given a delay of game penalty for lifting the puck over the glass in the defensive zone just nine seconds into the contest. Jason Pominville scored on the ensuing power play, giving the Sabres a 1-0 lead just 51 seconds into the game.
"They came out hard and we made bad decisions with the puck and gave up bad goals and it cost us," Hunter said.
Caps centerman Mathieu Perreault left Monday's game after he was hit in the face by his own stick during a collision with Buffalo's Christian Ehrhoff. Perrault was taken to a Buffalo-area hospital for precautionary reasons, but he practiced on Tuesday and is expected to be available tonight.
Washington has won three of its last four home games and is 11-5-1 as the host this year compared to a 6-10-1 road record. The Caps will complete a brief two-game homestand Friday against Buffalo.