March 24 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM, 106.7 FM and XM Pre-Game: Capitals Report/Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage Pre-game show at 6:30, both on washingtoncaps.com
Pittsburgh Penguins (42-25-6)
Washington Capitals (48-14-10)
After a three-day breather from the rigors of the condensed NHL schedule, the Capitals climb back into action on Wednesday night when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins. With a victory over the Pens, Washington would eliminate the Pens from any chance of claiming the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
The game pits the league’s top two goal-scorers – Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby – against one another. Both players are tied for the NHL lead with 45 goals. Despite missing 10 games this season, Ovechkin also paces the circuit with 97 points and a plus-42 plus/minus rating.
With a third straight Southeast Division already tucked away, the Caps are halfway through a 20-game, post-Olympic break tune-up. The Capitals compiled a 7-1-2 mark in the first half of that stretch, playing 10 games in 18 days. The three-day break leads into a spell in which the Caps will conclude the campaign with 10 games in 19 days.
With a 7-3 log in those 10 tilts, Washington can clinch the first President’s Trophy in the team’s 35-season history.
Nine of Washington’s final 10 games are against clubs that have anywhere from a faint glimmer of hope for a playoff berth (Carolina) to designs on a division title (Pittsburgh).
“[Caps head coach] Bruce [Boudreau] emphasizes how important every game is,” says Washington defenseman Mike Green. “Teams are going to be challenging us more and we have to step up. I think that’s a good thing for our hockey club. It will make us start playing more like playoff hockey come close to April here. I think it’s good that the other teams are pushing and keeping us focused.”
The Caps are in the unique position of being able to play spoiler down the stretch. They figure to have a say in which teams qualify for the final playoff berths and whether or not the Penguins can overtake the Devils for the Atlantic Division crown.
“I don’t think we’re really looking at playing spoilers,” says blueliner Shaone Morrisonn. “We’re just worried about having good habits going into the playoffs. We want to win every game. We’ll be pumped up to play all the games here. We’re excited to get going. We don’t want to have a letdown like we did last year. We felt we were kind of sloppy going into the playoffs and I think it might have cost us the first two games against the Rangers. We definitely stress being solid and keeping the good habits up.”
Washington is also motivated by the possibility of nailing down the President’s Trophy and sealing the home ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs that goes along with it.
“You know every game is going to be an up-tempo, high intensity game because a lot of the games coming up mean a lot to the other teams,” observes winger Matt Bradley. “And they mean a lot to us, too, because we want to finish first in the league. So we have to keep winning games. We want to finish the season on a high note so we don’t go into the playoffs on any sort of lull.”
Only five players – Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble – have played in all 10 of Washington’s games since the Olympic break. Laich suffered a facial laceration during Washington’s Tuesday practice when a John Carlson shot rang off the crossbar and hit him in the face. He was taken to get sutures, but Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said he believes Laich will be able to play on Wednesday.
According to Boudreau, Laich and Backstrom are not slated to sit out any of Washington’s final 10 games of the regular season. Green may or may not, depending upon his pursuit of some statistical objectives.
Laich is working on a career high six-game scoring streak (four goals, four assists).
The hottest Capital of all is goaltender Jose Theodore, who has not suffered a regulation loss in his last 18 decisions (16-0-2). He has posted a 2.40 GAA and a .927 save pct. during that stretch. Theodore is making a convincing argument that he should be the goaltender who leads Washington into the playoffs less than a month from now.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins are tied with New Jersey for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, but the Devils have a game in hand. Pittsburgh roared out of the Olympic break with four straight victories but it has gone just 2-3-2 since.
Normally one of the league’s most dangerous offensive clubs, the Penguins have scored three or fewer goals in eight straight games. They’ve been held to two or fewer tallies in six of those contests.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin has a bruised right foot and he is questionable for Wednesday’s game with Washington. Malkin has been sidelined for three of Pittsburgh’s last four games. He has missed 10 games this season, and Crosby has not scored in any of those contests.
While the Caps went 7-2-1 in the 10 games in which Ovechkin was out of the lineup, Pittsburgh has managed just a 3-7 record without Malkin on the ice.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury helped lead the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup championship last spring but he has been very ordinary of late. In his 25 appearances (24 starts) thus far in calendar 2010, Fleury has compiled a record of 11-8-4 to go along with a pedestrian 2.90 GAA and a .905 save pct.
Former Caps goaltender and current Pens backup Brent Johnson has outperformed Fleury statistically this season, at least in the areas of GAA and save pct.
Pittsburgh added scoring winger Alexei Ponikarovsky from Toronto just prior to the March 3 trade deadline and also brought in well-traveled veteran blueliner Jordan Leopold in a deal with the Florida Panthers. Ponikarovsky has accounted for two goals and six points in his nine games with the Pens while Leopold has collected one assist in 11 games. Leopold is plus-3 while averaging just uner 20 minutes a night with Pittsburgh.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is coaching in his 99th regular season NHL game on Wednesday in Washington. The Penguins have rolled up an impressive 60-28-10 record since he took over the bench boss duties on Feb. 15, 2009.