January 21 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Mellon Arena
Time: 7:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2:00 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (31-12-6)
Pittsburgh Penguins (31-19-1)
Washington heads to Western Pennsylvania for its first meeting of the season with the Penguins on Thursday at the Igloo. Last spring, the Capitals and Pittsburgh hooked up in one of the most memorable playoff series in recent memory. The first six games of that series gave fans some of the most dramatic postseason hockey in Washington’s franchise history, even though the series finale didn’t live up to expectation and didn’t go the Caps’ way.
It has been more than eight months since the Capitals lost Game 7 to the Pens, who then went on to defeat Carolina in the Eastern Conference final and Detroit in the Stanley Cup final. Washington has had to wait all those months and 49 regular season games to get another crack at Pittsburgh.
“I think we were 3-0-1 against them [in the regular season] last year and it didn’t mean a hill of beans,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “It’s usually fun playing them. We get to watch a whole bunch of the best players in the world play and it’s usually a pretty good atmosphere. So from that perspective, it’s a good game.”
As a lead-in to Thursday’s game against the Pens, the Caps hosted the Red Wings on Tuesday in the first of consecutive contests against last spring’s Stanley Cup finalists. The Caps played nowhere near their capabilities against Detroit, but goaltender Jose Thedore was brilliant. He made 44 saves to enable the Capitals to steal a pair of points in a 3-2 win over the Wings.
The victory enables Washington to haul a four-game winning streak to Pittsburgh for its first 2009-10 date with the Penguins.
“We didn’t work anywhere near the level of the Detroit Red Wings,” says Boudreau of Tuesday’s game. “Every now and again, you can rely on your goaltender to steal one and he stole one for us yesterday. But you don’t want to go into every game going, ‘I hope the goalie is great, that’s the only way we can win.’ We know our work ethic has to be picked up.”
Although the Caps had a streak of seven straight games with four or more goals snapped against the Wings, they haven’t been as dominant offensively in the last few games. Washington has managed fewer than 25 shots in three straight games for the first time this season and the first time in more than four years during the regular season.
New York held the Caps to fewer than 25 shots three times to start the playoffs last spring, and Pittsburgh held the Caps beneath that modest threshold four times in seven games in their playoff series last May.
“We’re not applying as much pressure in the offensive end as we’d like to,” admits Boudreau. “But it’s nice to know that we’re not going in there on a three-game losing streak.”
The Caps are also going into Pittsburgh with a hot goaltender. Jose Theodore has started and won three straight games and has wins in four straight appearances for the first time this season. After winning three games in each of the season’s first three months, Theodore is 5-1 with a 2.10 GAA and a .936 save pct. in January.
His 44-save effort (on 46 shots) was the most shots he had faced in a game in more than six years.
“It felt pretty good,” says Theodore of his performance against Detroit. “I knew they were going to be a desperate team because they are so skilled. They’re a good team. They’re still the Stanley Cup finalists but they’re fighting for the playoffs. They got two pretty good scoring chances right off the bat and then when I made those two saves I felt pretty good about where my game was.
“We didn’t panic even though they were coming hard. We showed some composure. For myself, I can’t say I was really tired. I’ve been working so hard in practices that my cardio was good and my energy level was good.”
Last season, Theodore got off to a slow start before catching fire in late December. He won six straight games from Dec. 23-Jan. 6, the second longest such streak of his career. Theodore had a similar late-season run with Colorado in 2007-08, and he has won more games (47) and authored more shutouts (eight) in January during his career than he has in any other month. His 2.39 career GAA in January is the best of any month in his career and his .915 save pct. is second best.
“It’s hard to explain,” he says, asked about getting hot in the year’s coldest month. “This year, I thought for the first time in a couple of years I had a really good start in October. Then I had a letdown after that. November and December weren’t great. But when you look at the schedule and you see there are 35 games left, 30 games left, you are already starting to think about the playoffs and you want to be sure you work on your game. Those games toward the end [of the season], that’s when you really want to build something and build your confidence and really show everybody that you’re ready for the last stretch.”
Theodore didn’t get a chance to start any of the seven games against Pittsburgh last spring. He came on in relief of starter Semyon Varlamov in Game 7 for his only postseason action against Pittsburgh.
“Every time you play the Stanley Cup champions you are anxious to play them,” says the veteran Caps goaltender. “Last year they were the best team. They won the Cup. It’s always fun games to play against them. Even last year during the season I had a chance to play many games and it was always exciting. [Thursday is] going to be fun.”
Going into Thursday’s game with the Penguins, Washington holds a five-point lead over Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps also have two games in hand on the Pens.
No one denies the aura of electricity that permeates these recent vintage Capitals-Penguins match-ups, but the Caps are trying to keep it in perspective.
“Basically, it’s another game,” says Caps defenseman Tom Poti. “Obviously, last time we played them they beat us pretty good and knocked us out of the playoffs. That sucks. But we can’t try to think too much about this. We just have to go out and play our game and try to get a win, try to move up in the standings. That’s all we’re really concerned about. We’re not really worried about anything else.”
The Caps are looking forward to seeing how they match up against the defending champs.
“They are the Stanley Cup champs,” states Poti. “Anytime anybody plays against them, no matter what team it is, you use it as a measuring stick to see how you stack up against them. We’re going to be no different [Thursday] night. We’re going to go out and see where we stand. They’re the champs until somebody beats them and takes it away from them.”
On Tuesday, Pittsburgh poured half a dozen goals on the New York Islanders in a 6-4 win over the Fishermen at the Igloo. Evgeni Malkin broke out of an 11-game drought with a hat trick and Sidney Crosby had a six-point night (two goals, four assists) as he had a hand in every Pittsburgh goal.
That game began a stretch in which Pittsburgh plays eight of 12 games at home leading up to the Olympic break. The Penguins are 15-8-1 on Igloo ice this season.
Pittsburgh went 4-for-7 on the power play in Tuesday’s win over New York, getting as many extra-man tallies in that contest as it had gotten in the previous 11 games combined (4-for-37, 10.8%). The Penguins moved up to 26th in the league (16%) by virtue of their extra-man outburst against the Islanders.
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a broken ring finger on his catching hand last week during Pittsburgh’s recently completed western trip. Fleury, who is tied for fourth in the league with 25 wins, is unlikely to play Thursday against Washington. Ex-Caps goaltender Brent Johnson is the probable starter.
Johnson signed with the Pens last summer after spending the previous four seasons with the Capitals. He has a 4-0 career mark with a shutout, a 1.16 GAA and a .952 save pct. against Washington.
The banged-up Penguins got two injured players – Johnson and defenseman Brooks Orpik – back in the lineup for the win over the Isles. But the Pens also lost a pair of players in that game as forwards Pascal Dupuis and Max Talbot were injured. Both are listed as day-to-day.