Alain Vigneault is known for tinkering with his lineup, especially early in the year. Tonight marks the Rangers 12th game of the season, which is odd because it feels like they haven't played in about 15 years.
The Washington Capitals currently boast the best record in the Metro, sitting atop the group tied with the Rangers at 16 points but having played one less game. A win tonight would push either team into sole possession of first place in the division.
This is going to be a good litmus test for a Rangers team that hasn't played as well as their record might indicate. The Rangers looked better in their win over the Maple Leafs last Friday but will really need to take it into another gear against the high-powered Washington offense. To compensate that offense, Vigneault has made a few changes.
Based off practice pairings (Vigneault would neither confirm nor deny) Dan Girardi will be reunited with Ryan McDonagh on the top pairing. The duo has pretty spectacular numbers against Alexander Ovechkin and company -- Girardi has a positive GF% and CF% against both Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in his career -- but this year's regression is going to test that continuing tonight. I'm not a huge fan of taking Kevin Klein off the top pairing for Girardi for a simple reason: Girardi has leaked shot attempts at an alarming rate this year (currently Girardi is at a -60 shot differential for the season) and Ovechkin can score from anywhere. An extra two or three shots from Ovechkin can be the difference between a win and a loss.
The other change is sitting Emerson Etem in favor of Victor Stalberg. I am firmly in the camp that Etem should be playing every night, but as we talked about last week, there really isn't a wrong answer for the bottom six with Tanner Glass in the AHL. A quality hockey player is going to sit every night, but at least a quality player will be playing in his place. That wasn't always the case in the recent past.
Vigneault mentioned Stalberg's defensive and penalty killing abilities as a big factor in this move. I support that. The Capitals are a dangerous team and despite Etem's spectacular numbers in terms of possession the past two games, defensively he is still learning and thus a liability in certain respects. Stalberg should round out the fourth line nicely and help keep the Capitals on their toes.
The other surprising change is Dylan McIlrath playing for Dan Boyle. I'm not totally sure how Boyle -- who has been so much better since his scratch earlier in the year -- is being punished for "bad play" when Girardi has easily been the worst defenseman on the ice, but it's where we are. This is going to be a big test for McIlrath, against a very good offensive team, but I also don't love the idea of sitting Boyle in a matchup where specials teams will most likely play a big role.
Keith Yandle and Klein have been united on the second power play unit -- I actually like that pairing up top a lot -- while Derick Brassard and McDonagh manned the first unit's point.
We'll see how all this goes, but I do think Vigneault is taking two big risks tonight. We'll see how it goes.