December 23 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap pre-game podcast on washingtoncaps.com at 2 p.m.
Pittsburgh Penguins (23-10-2)
Washington Capitals (20-12-4)
Washington plays its 37th game of the season on Thursday when it hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center. The meeting will be the first of four between the two teams this season, and a prelude to the much more ballyhooed meeting between the two teams next week at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh for the NHL’s Winter Classic.
Thursday’s game figures to be a focal point of the HBO series “24/7: The Road To The Winter Classic.”
The Caps stopped an eight-game winless slide on Sunday in Ottawa with a 3-2 win over the Senators. They followed that up with a convincing 5-1 win over the Devils on Tuesday.
Now their focus is squarely on Pittsburgh, a team they play twice in the next four games. Washington wants to take a three-game winning streak into the NHL’s two-day holiday break.
“I think we’re looking forward to the game because the buildup is so big,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “They haven’t stopped winning; they had a little blip in the radar. We’re in like a mini-turnaround. We’re not where we want to be, but it’s better than going in 0-10.”
Washington’s confidence is building, collectively and individually. Even though the quartet of the Caps’ top offensive players – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green – has been quiet for a prolonged period, the Caps have gotten contributions from the rest of the roster.
The Caps had five different goal-scorers in the win over the Devils, including three members of the 2010 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears: Andrew Gordon, Jay Beagle and John Carlson. Those contributions have been welcome in light of the ongoing offensive slump of the team’s top offensive talents.
Since the start of the 2007-08 season, the Capitals are 151-49-27 when one or more of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green scores in a game. The Caps are 16-33-6 when none of those players scores.
Already this season, the Caps have had 14 such games (3-11-1). Currently, Washington is in the midst of an almost unfathomable run in which none of those four players have scored in seven straight games. The Caps have totaled 13 goals in those seven games, with five of them coming in Tuesday’s win over New Jersey.
“We want everybody clicking on all cylinders,” says Boudreau. “Right now, we’ve got maybe 12 or 13 guys going as good as they can, and we’re winning different ways. But our power play’s not going very well. We’ve got certain individuals not scoring the way they’re accustomed to scoring. Last game [against the Devils], we gave up 35 shots.
“All year it seems we’re looking for the perfect game and it hasn’t happened. But we’d like to see more of the kind of game from [Tuesday] night more often.”
Each of the Caps’ young duo of defensemen – Karl Alzner and John Carlson – is plus-6 in the team’s last four games. Those two might be counted on to help assume some of the burden for shutting down the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when the Pens pay a visit to the District on Thursday.
“It’s going to be good,” says Alzner. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. A lot of times you rise to that occasion. It’s a lot of responsibility to play well against those guys. It’s going to be a lot of what we’ve seen the last two games with tight gaps. The less they touch the puck, the better it’s going to be for us.”
In the three seasons immediately following the lockout, the Caps struggled against their former Patrick Division rivals and frequent postseason opponents. Washington was 2-8-2 against the Pens over a span of three seasons starting in 2005-06, but the Caps have had the upper hand since. Over the last two seasons, the Capitals are 7-0-1 against the Penguins.
Washington’s last regulation setback to the Penguins was a 4-2 defeat at Verizon Center on March 9, 2008.
“I think it’s a great barometer to see where we are at because they’re playing the best hockey arguably of any team in the NHL right now,” says Boudreau. “When you play against the best, it finds where you have to go and where you have to be. And as a coach, it will definitely be a great test.
“They’re a great team and we have a good rivalry against them. It’s one of the great things that HBO is going to be able to catch is that all the talking that we think goes on will go on.”
Michal Neuvirth is expected to get his fourth consecutive start in goal for Washington and the first of his NHL career against Pittsburgh. He will be starting four straight games for the first time since starting six in a row in late October-early November. He also started the first six games of the season.
In winning each of his last two starts, Neuvirth stopped 59 of the 62 shots he faced.
The Penguins hit town on the heels of Wednesday night’s 5-2 home ice win over the Florida Panthers.
Pittsburgh got off to a slow start this season, and the Pens were at 7-8-1 after a 7-4 loss to Boston on Nov. 10. The Penguins then went on a tear in which they picked up at least a point in 15 straight (14-0-1), a stretch that included a 12-game winning streak.
The Penguins dropped a pair of games to Atlantic Division foes Philadelphia and the Rangers last week before returning to the win column with Monday’s 6-1 thumping of the Coyotes.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Capitals on Thursday is the task of trying to shut down Penguins center Sidney Crosby. Recently, no team has been able to do it.
With a goal in Wednesday’s game against Florida, Crosby extended his scoring streak to 22 consecutive games. That matches the second-longest streak in the league over the last 18 seasons. Dany Heatley – then with Ottawa – had a 22-game streak in 2005. Quebec’s Mats Sundin had a 30-game streak during the 1992-93 season.
During the life of his streak, Crosby has 22 goals and 43 points. He leads the league in goals (28) and points (58).
Ex-Caps goalie Brent Johnson started Wednesday’s game against the Panthers, but he did not finish. Marc-Andre Fleury came on in relief after two periods and played the final frame. Johnson left because of a lower body injury. Fleury is expected to get the start against Washington on Thursday.
Fleury got off to a dismal start this season, winning just one of his first eight starts (1-6). He posted a 3.56 GAA and an .853 save pct. during that span.
Since then, he has rebounded quite nicely. Fleury is 14-1-1 in his last 17 appearances (16 starts) with a 1.76 GAA and a .940 save pct.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Fleury is 8-3-2 with a 3.17 GAA and a .903 save pct. He started his career with a 7-0 run against Washington. Since then, he is 1-3-2 with a 4.54 GAA and an .861 save pct. in his last seven starts against the Capitals.