WASHINGTON - What projected as a season of mediocrity for the Rangers might have descended into a campaign of disaster.

Under pressure after middle-of-the-pack finishes the past two seasons, their defense torn asunder by injury, the Rangers nonetheless exited their latest game, on Wednesday, with 48 points, second in the Eastern Conference.

It is a tenuous position.

When they play well, these Rangers chew nails in their cud and spit cinders, a reflection of coach and captain. They ignore the constant shadow of HBO's "24/7" camera crew, and they and they simply do their jobs.

When they don't play well . . . well, they lose, 4-1, to a heartless Capitals club.

"That wasn't us," said center Brian Boyle.

"Brain-dead," snarled coach John Tortorella, succinctly answering the one question asked after the game, then stalking off.

When they play smart and hard and focused, play the way Tortorella insists they play - the formula that helped him win a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004 - the Rangers can compete with the likes of the Flyers, whom they meet in the fifth Winter Classic on Monday.

But without a dominant talent producing nightly, the Rangers can disappear altogether.

They cannot afford five toothless power plays, or 2-minute possessions inside their own zone, or lazy giveaways - all factors in their loss to the potent Capitals.

The addition of free-agent gem Brad Richards didn't quite provide the bounce expected - such as recharging Marion Gaborik - but Gaborik has shined, anyway. His 22 goals are tied for the NHL lead, matching his disappointing total from last season and putting him on pace for his first 50-goal campaign.

Richards was benched during a game 2 weeks ago, and has made as much news recently for his coupling with actress Olivia Munn as for his production - though Richards has played better since Thanksgiving.

On Wednesday, Alex Ovechkin clobbered Richards at the blue line and stole the puck, which led to the Capitals' third goal and a 3-1 lead in the latter stages of the second period. Richards' fingerprints were on the fourth and final goal, too.

"Brain-dead," remember?

Meanwhile, the Rangers rode a five-game winning streak into Washington. They were in first place on Dec. 28, the latest in a season they held the top spot since 1995-96.

"We're a close-knit group that's been in this system for a while," Boyle explained. "Maybe the show helps that. I don't know."

Much of the success should be traced to No. 1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals-against average of 1.95 and save percentage of .936 rank fourth in the NHL. Lundqvist didn't start in Washington, resting on his 13-4-1 and 1.77 GAA run, which included two shutouts, one of which came in Philadelphia.

What makes Lundqvist's season all the more impressive is that half of the projected defense corps in front of him is hobbled.

Concussion issues have kept Marc Staal off the ice all season, and Michael Sauer hasn't played since Dec. 5. Steve Eminger was lost last week for as long as 12 weeks with a separated shoulder - an injury documented on "24/7."

Twenty-one-year-old Michael Del Zotto, a first-round pick in 2008, is among the league's top defensemen with a plus-23 rating, fulfilling some of the promise the Rangers see in him. He helped on two goals against the Flyers a week ago.

But the grit of the defense lay in the persons of Dan Girardi, who leads the league with 27 minutes, 24 seconds of ice time per game, and Ryan McDonagh.

"Guys have been stepping up, playing great," Girardi said. "I have the utmost confidence in our team and our defensive forwards bouncing back."

They have the chance to do that tonight in Florida, which leads the Southeast Division with 45 points. Then, to Philadelphia for the third of a three-game trip - a trip that could well turn their season around the wrong way.

There is no better measure of the Rangers' character than first-year captain Ryan Callahan. Inside a 2-minute span Wednesday, Callahan blocked three slap shots, and tried to block a fourth.

The first block careened off his left ankle, felled him, and left him on his knees as Brandon Dubinsky raced down ice and scored to tie the game, 1-1, late in the first period.

Callahan hobbled to the bench - briefly. He was back on the ice in less than a minute to help kill a penalty. He absorbed a slapper at nearly the same spot as the first one. He then tried to catch a piece of a wound-up rocket from Ovechkin, then, undaunted, sprawled and deflected another blast from the Russian Machine.

Consider, too, that Callahan's season ended in April when he blocked a bomb from Boston giant Zdeno Chara - and Callahan missed a long stretch before that after he broke his hand blocking a shot.

"He's our leader for a reason. He's wearing the 'C,' " Girardi said. "You see him doing that, it just makes you want to play that much harder for each other. He's been doing that since I joined this team."

This spotlight cannot glare too brightly for Callahan, an Olympian last year. And the Rangers are not exactly the Coyotes.

They play in Madison Square Garden, which bills itself as the World's Most Famous Arena, and they play in New York, as an Original Six team.

No other hockey team in America endures as much daily scrutiny (hey, Detroit's in Detroit).

So, what's a few extra TV cameras for a team like the Rangers?

"We've done a really good job at paying attention to the job at hand, and that's playing hockey," Girardi said. "It's a unique group here. We don't get caught up in the hoopla."