March 19 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center
Time: 7:30 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 106.7 The Fan and Caps Radio Network
Washington Capitals (12-15-1)
Pittsburgh Penguins (22-8-0)
Washington opens its longest road trip of the season – a four-game journey – in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. The Caps will close out their three-game season series with the Penguins, who have won each of the first two meetings between the two teams this season.
Nearly half (five) of Washington’s 12 wins this season have come against the only two teams that remain beneath it in the Eastern Conference standings, the Florida Panthers and the Buffalo Sabres. The Caps earned a 5-3 home ice won over the Sabres on Sunday in the first of just two home games Washington will host in a span of 22 days.
“It’s a big win for us,” says Caps center Mike Ribeiro. “It’s a big week for us. To start the week like this is huge for us.”
After winning just one of their previous five games and failing to score more than three goals in any of those games, the Caps had a breakout offensive performance against Buffalo, getting an Alex Ovechkin goal just 19 seconds into the game – the fastest he has scored a goal to start a game in his NHL career – and getting tallies from five different players.
“I think it was good,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward, who registered two assists. “Some guys scored, [Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault]. Some guys – especially going on a big road trip – that’s huge going into it. It’s going to be good for confidence for sure and let guys play their game and hopefully they can keep that streak going.”
Chimera’s goal was his first of the season and his first regular season marker since April 2, 2012. Perreault had been a healthy scratch in two straight and three of the previous four. He returned with a flourish against the Sabres, notching a goal and an assist while winning 8 of 11 face-offs (83%) on the night.
The news from Sunday’s game wasn’t all positive. For the third time in a span of just six games, the Caps lost a defenseman in the middle of the contest. Tom Poti departed in the second period of Sunday’s game against the Sabres because of a back injury sustained when Buffalo center Steve Ott cross-checked him.
The Caps’ defense is already playing without Mike Green, John Erskine and Tomas Kundratek, but the blueline got a boost over the weekend when Jack Hillen returned to the lineup after a two-month absence because of an upper body injury. Hillen logged more than 23 minutes against the Sabres, becoming the ninth of the 11 defensemen employed by the Caps this season to play at least 20 minutes in a contest.
Washington recalled defenseman Dmitry Orlov from AHL Hershey on Monday. Orlov flew to Pittsburgh with the team and could make his 2012-13 NHL debut on Tuesday against the Penguins. Orlov got into 60 games with the Capitals as a rookie last season, acquitting himself well. He totaled three goals, 19 points, 18 PIM and a plus-1 while averaging 16:52 per game in ice time.
Washington is just 4-8-1 on the road this season, and all four of its road victories have come against Southeast Division opponents. With just 20 games remaining, the Caps still have a lot of climbing to do if they hope to nail down a sixth straight Stanley Cup playoff berth. Winning consistently on the road from here on out is paramount.
“We talked about it,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “They know that. We’ve got a long road trip. It’s obviously going to be tough games, but we need them.”
Caps goalie Braden Holtby started and won against the Sabres after Michal Neuvirth played the previous two games. Holtby matched a single-season career high in earning his 10th win of the season against Buffalo.
“You look at the standings right now,” says Holtby, “it’s still close from top to bottom really in that playoff race. Buffalo is in the same situation we are, so to get those points is huge. Right now we have to treat every game like a playoff game. We have to win every one or else we’re done, that’s what we’re treating it like.”
As illuminated by the fine folks at japersrink.com, the Caps are a perfect 8-0-0 this season when they outscore the opposition at even strength and 1-13-1 when they themselves are outscored at even strength. The Caps are 3-2-0 in games in which the even strength scoring is even.
Pittsburgh is in the midst of a serious roll as Washington hits the Steel City. The Penguins have won nine straight games and are perched atop the Eastern Conference standings. Most recently, the Pens took a 2-1 Sunday afternoon decision on home ice from the Boston Bruins. Pittsburgh won that contest despite being limited to just 18 shots on goal, a single-game low for the Penguins this season.
Only the Chicago Blackhawks (11-game winning streak) have had a longer winning streak this season among all NHL teams. Pittsburgh’s streak began in its first game of the month, a March 2 visit to Montreal. The Pens won that one 7-6 in overtime.
Each of the first four wins in the streak came by a single goal, and one came in a shootout. The Pens outscored their foes by a combined 20-17 in those contests. In the last five games of the streak, the Penguins have tightened up significantly in their own end, allowing a total of just five goals. Pittsburgh has outscored the opposition by an aggregate 17-5 in those five contests.
The Pens won Sunday’s game against the Bruins despite playing without reigning league MVP Evgeni Malkin (upper body injury) and despite losing top pair defenseman Kris Letang (lower body injury) during the game.
Like Washington, Pittsburgh did not practice on Monday so it is not known whether Malkin and/or Letang will return to the Penguins’ lineup in time for Tuesday’s game.
The Penguins have won each of the first two meetings between themselves and the Capitals this season, taking a pair of tilts in a span of five days in early February. The Caps held their own into the middle of the second period of each of those contests before getting into penalty trouble. Pittsburgh’s potent power play blew the lid off those games, and the Pens won them by a combined total of 11-5. The Penguins were 5-for-7 (71.4%) on the power play in those two games.
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