By Sean Hartnett
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On Tuesday night, the 7-2-2 Rangers will host the revamped Washington Capitals for the first time since the Blueshirts staged a comeback from 3-1 down in the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals to eliminate the Caps in seven games.
The Rangers have 16 points, but the 8-2-0 Capitals currently sit in first place in the Metropolitan Division via tiebreaker because they've played one less game. While still very much reliant on all-world captain Alex Ovechkin, this year's edition of the Capitals boasts a deeper scoring punch thanks to the offseason acquisitions of Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie.
A player to watch will be Rangers rookie defenseman Dylan McIlrath. Head coach Alain Vigneault hinted strongly that the 23-year-old will re-enter the lineup after being held out for seven consecutive games. McIlrath skated alongside Keith Yandle at Monday's practice while 39-year-old Dan Boyle was an extra.
"As of now, I'm probably going to put Dylan in on 'D,'" Vigneault said. "Washington is a big team. I know he hasn't played in a while, but I think it's something I'm probably going to do tomorrow."
Vigneault likes the idea of matching up McIlrath's 6-foot-5, 220-pound body against a Caps team that plays a heavy, physical game. Boyle has struggled with puck management and decision-making in the defensive zone, leading to frequent turnovers and opposition scoring chances. Vigneault admitted that Boyle needs to raise his game after an underwhelming start. Counted to be a point producer, the 17-year veteran has collected two points (both assists) through 10 games and is without a point in four games.
It should be noted that Boyle made an alert play in the first period during last Friday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He winded the puck along the offensive zone boards, leading to a tic-tac-toe sequence between Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and goalscorer Mats Zuccarello. That's the sort of veteran poise the Rangers need to see more of from Boyle.
"Dan Boyle – I have a tremendous amount of respect for a guy that's had that career," Vigneault said. "He hasn't played bad, but he hasn't played as well as we think he can play. He's been given a good opportunity. Now, it's time to see Dylan. This is a big team and I think it could be a good game for Dylan."
It's a sink or swim situation for McIlrath. If he uses his body effectively to shut down the high-powered Caps, it could sway Vigneault toward keeping him in the lineup for an extended spell. If he performs poorly, the Rangers could opt to recall Raphael Diaz from minor-league Hartford and attempt to pass McIlrath through waivers. Diaz has scored one goal and collected one assist in five games for the Wolf Pack. The 29-year-old has a strong handle on Vigneault's uptempo system, and he skated in four games during the Rangers' 2014 run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Although he has been scratched for 10 of 11 games this season, McIlrath has kept his eyes open. Assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson has taken the young defenseman under his wing and held him accountable.
"He's always kind of quizzing me when I'm watching games to see if I noticed anything out there, what could have been better and what went well," McIlrath told WFAN.com. "He's been great in practice – holding me accountable with practice habits and it's great. It's the same standard for everyone. He's been a really good influence on me to make sure I'm sharp."
As the lone blue-line youngster, the 23-year-old has also leaned on the advice of veterans Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Boyle.
"I'm trying to pick their brains as much as I can because they're so professional," McIlrath said. "They've been around the league for a long time. They've been great with answering any questions I've had, whether it's just as simple as what to do in practice or how I can pivot better. All the D-core have been great. The biggest thing at the next level is thinking the game. It's tough to get away with pure athleticism. One thing I tried to work on down in the minors was letting the play come to me. You can see guys in the NHL that maybe don't have the best footspeed, they get away with it because they're so smart defensively."
Staal sees the positive habits paying off for McIlrath.
"We try to help him out as much as we can," the 28-year-old alternate captain said. "A lot of times, you have to learn by experience and getting through it yourself. If he has questions along the way, we're more than happy to help him out. He's worked hard and he's earned everything he's gotten at this point, for sure."
Now it's time for McIlrath to put practice into play. He must show the Rangers that he can apply what he's learned by being a shutdown force on the ice against the big-bodied Caps.
"They've got some big boys up front and that physicality will definitely help slow them down and make them aware coming around in front of our net," Staal said. "He uses it to his advantage for sure. We're looking for him to do that for us (Tuesday) night."
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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