The New York Rangers own a sizable cushion for third place in the Metropolitan Division, but without reversing a string of inconsistent performances their margin might start becoming uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, the Capitals are trying to claw their way back into contention for one of the Eastern Conference’s wild-card spots.
Two division foes with differing agendas battle for the third time this season Tuesday night when the Rangers host the Capitals.
New York heads into Tuesday at 84 points, good enough to be six points clear of the Penguins for the first wild-card spot.
However, Rangers are 4-5-2 since Feb. 17 to go from six points out of first place in the division to a 10-point deficit behind the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils.
During their run of uneven performances, the Rangers played three home games and lost to Winnipeg and Ottawa. New York is returning home to play six of its next eight at home after going 2-0-1 on a three-game trip through Montreal, Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
The Rangers ended the trip with a 3-2 loss in Pittsburgh on Sunday when backup goalie Jaroslav Halak was beaten by Kris Letang’s power-play goal 1:38 into overtime. Sunday’s loss occurred after the Rangers got 32 saves from Igor Shesterkin and a power-play goal from Artemi Panarin in a 2-1 overtime win at Buffalo a day earlier.
It marked the sixth time since the Edmonton win on Feb. 17 that the Rangers scored two goals or fewer.
“We haven’t played well, we admit to that, but we’re still winning hockey games, too,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “Tonight, we still got a point against a real good team over there. We’re battling hard. We have to be better. We know that. I think everybody in that room knows it.”
Washington owns a pair of dominant wins over the Rangers so far. The Capitals cruised to a 4-0 win in New York on Dec. 27 and then rolled to a 6-3 home win on Feb. 25.
The last win over the Rangers started a 4-2-1 stretch that has seen the Capitals total 30 goals.
In the last meeting with the Rangers, Evgeny Kuznetsov collected a pair of goals and two assists. T.J. Oshie had a three-point showing along with the hit that injured New York defenseman Ryan Lindgren’s shoulder that kept him out for the past seven games.
Alex Ovechkin also collected two assists in the previous meeting and has four goals and eight points since returning from a four-game absence last month.
Washington moved within five of the New York Islanders for the second wild-card spot when it rolled to a 5-1 win over them Saturday in Elmont, N.Y. Dylan Strome and Oshie scored the first of five straight goals before Anthony Mantha, Nic Dowd and Nicklas Backstrom scored in the third period.
Washington also allowed a season-low 18 shots on goal, doing so after giving up 122 in its previous three games.
“It was very important for us to play a complete team game like that,” Oshie said. “That was one of our most complete games.”