February 6 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 12:30 pm TV: NBC Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM
Pittsburgh Penguins (34-15-4)
Washington Capitals (28-15-10)
Two nights after authoring one of their most complete and driven 60-minute efforts of the season in a key 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Caps head home to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Super Bowl Sunday matinee match.
The last time these two teams met was on the largest possible regular season stage, the NHL’s annual Winter Classic on New Year’s Day in Pittsburgh. The Caps turned in a terrific performance in that one as well, taking the Penguins down by a 3-1 count at Heinz Field.
Washington spent Wednesday and Thursday working exclusively on defeating the Lightning, a team that plays a system unlike any other. The combination of coaching, effort and execution led the Caps to victory.
“I think the biggest thing was just commitment and the work ethic,” says Caps winger Mike Knuble. “Guys came out and we worked. We gave up a goal on the first shot but it didn’t faze us. We kept going.”
For the first time since Dec. 1-2, the Caps have scored a power play goal in successive games. Alex Ovechkin did the honors on Friday against the Lightning, his first extra-man strike in more than three months, since he scored two power play goals against the Flames in Calgary on Oct. 30.
“The power play chipped in again,” notes Knuble. “I think that’s a big part, too. That takes it from a one-goal game to a 3-1 lead. All facets of the game are pretty good. We did a good job because in their game plan, they want the turnovers. We kept it away from them. We had the puck a lot more and we’re a good puck possession team.
“We learned something. I think we learned that you don’t have to rush into things at times and there are a number of ways to break down somebody’s defense.”
Boudreau and his staff are now faced with the challenge of facing another hot team that’s ahead of Washington in the standings. Playing high caliber opponents has been troublesome for the Caps of late; Friday’s win was its first against a team currently ensconced in the top eight in either conference since the aforementioned Winter Classic triumph over the Penguins on Jan. 1.
Since the beginning of December, the Caps are 3-7-6 against teams currently in the playoff picture and 7-2-2 against those clubs on the outside looking in. Eight of Washington’s next nine foes are either in the playoff picture or within a single point of it as of Saturday morning’s standings. The lone exception is Buffalo, currently one of the hottest teams in the league. Although the Sabres currently sit six points back of eighth-place Atlanta in the Eastern Conference standings, Buffalo has four games in hand.
While Washington’s tactical scheme against Tampa Bay isn’t likely to serve them well against the Pens or most of the rest of the NHL, there are elements of Friday’s victory that the Capitals would love to carry forward.
“What specifically we'll take out of [the game] is the effort that it took to beat one of the better teams in the league in their building,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “It was by 20 guys. I didn't see any passengers last night, everybody was committed to doing what they're supposed to be doing."
With five straight wins and eight victories in their last nine games, the Penguins remain one of the league’s hottest teams, and they’re getting it done without top centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. Crosby left Pittsburgh’s Jan. 5 game with the Lightning and hasn’t played since because of a concussion. Malkin has been in and out of the lineup all season, but left Friday’s game with the Sabres early in the second period. On Saturday, the Penguins revealed that Malkin will likely require knee surgery and is probably sidelined for the season.
The Penguins have crept to within a single point of the Philadelphia Flyers for the top perch in the Atlantic Division standings.
Much has been written and said about the Caps’ improved defense and penalty killing this season, and rightfully so. But Washington is looking up at the Penguins in both categories.
The Penguins have allowed the second fewest goals per game this season while Washington is a respectable eighth in that category. The Pens have surrendered only 14 goals in their last nine games, allowing as many as three goals in a game just once in that span.
Pittsburgh leads the league in penalty killing and the Pens have been shorthanded more often than any other team in the league. Washington is second in the circuit in penalty killing. Both teams are hot in that department lately; Pittsburgh has killed 33 of its last 34 shorthanded situations while the Caps have killed 33 of 35 (94.3%).
Notes: This is the 18th Super Bowl Sunday matinee that Washington has hosted in the last 24 years, since 1988. The Capitals are 13-3-1 in those games, including seven straight victories – since moving to Verizon Center – entering today's game.