February 21 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center
Time: 7:30 pm TV: VERSUS Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (31-19-10)
Pittsburgh Penguins (36-19-5)
Washington’s longest continuous road trip of the 2010-11 season comes to an end Monday night in Pittsburgh when the Capitals make their first ever visit to the Consol Energy Center to take on the Penguins. The game concludes the season’s series between the two former Patrick Division rivals.
The Caps come to town on the heels of Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Sabres in Buffalo, a victory that evened them up at 2-2 on the trip to date.
“We worked hard all game and we really fought for it,” said rookie Caps center Marcus Johansson, whose first career power play goal in the NHL also proved to be his first career game-winning goal in the NHL. “When we play like that, we deserve two points. We played really good the whole game and it was a well-deserved win.
“We played good all over the ice. We played simple and kept the puck on the boards and didn’t lose it too much. I think it was a good game all over.”
That victory over Buffalo prevented the resurgent Sabres from gaining ground on the Caps in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. Now the fifth-place Caps have another four-point game, this one against the fourth-place Penguins. The Capitals enter the game five points behind the Pens in the Eastern Conference standings.
Washington has been living off the fat of a fast 14-4-1 start this season. Since then, the Caps are a pedestrian 17-15-9 over a 41-game span that is equivalent to half a season. The 86-point pace at which Washington is operating over those last 41 games would not be sufficient for a playoff berth over a full season. The Caps know they need to go off on a bit of a winning spree to cement themselves in the top eight of the Eastern Conference standings.
“We feel like we’re on the edge of really breaking free here,” said Caps defenseman John Carlson after Sunday’s win in Buffalo. “We’re not there yet. Certainly this one was a good win, a good, hard-fought win. We did a lot of the little things to succeed today. You see some of the big blocked shots and you see some guys maybe not taking a chance at the end of the game, just getting it behind the net and just cycling it and playing smart and that’s what it takes to win all the time.”
Washington held the Sabres to one goal and 29 shots on goal after having allowed three or more goals in five straight games for the first time since December.
“We’ve been priding ourselves on what we’ve been doing on the back end,” says Carlson of the Caps’ seventh ranked defense. “We got away from what we’ve been doing. There is still stuff that we’d like to clean up, but it’s a start.”
Heading into the Buffalo game, the Caps had allowed at least one goal in the third period of five straight games for the first time in 2010-11, and they allowed two or more third-period goals in three of those games. The Caps shut down the Sabres on 11 shots in helping Semyon Varlamov record his 10th win of the season.
Johansson’s power play goal was just the second for the Capitals in their last seven games (2-for-23, 8.7%). Washington hasn’t had more than one power play goal in its last 36 games.
Recently, the Caps haven’t been getting many power play chances. They’ve had more than four power play opportunities just twice in their last 17 games, including Sunday’s 1-for-5 performance against the Sabres.
The two teams last met 15 days ago in the District, with Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth shutting out the Penguins, 3-0. It was the first shutout by a Caps goalie against the Penguins in nearly two decades, since Don Beaupre authored an 8-0 whitewash of the Pens in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, 1991.
Washington is 2-0-1 in the season’s series to date against the Penguins. Since the start of the 2008-09 campaign, the Capitals are 9-0-2 against Pittsburgh.
Although Neuvirth whitewashed the Pens in his last start against them, Varlamov was in goal for the Winter Classic win. He is a good bet to get a second straight start on Monday coming off a 28-save effort against the Sabres.
In Varlamov’s last 18 appearances (17 starts), he has received a total of 30 goals in offensive support. As a result, he is just 6-7-4 during that span despite a 2.46 GAA and a .907 save pct. That span includes a 7-0 setback in New York on Dec. 12 in which he surrendered seven goals on just 20 shots.
Unbeaten in regulation in their last seven visits to the Steel City, the Caps will be making their first ever visit to Pittsburgh’s new hockey venue, the Consol Energy Center. The Capitals’ previous visit to Pittsburgh this season came in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, which was played under the lights at Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. After falling behind 1-0 in that game, the Caps stormed back with three unanswered strikes to get out of town with a 3-1 win.
While the Caps were taking on the Sabres in an early afternoon game in Buffalo on Sunday, Pittsburgh paid a visit to the Windy City to take on the Blackhawks in a mid-matinee tilt. The Caps got into Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon before the Penguins returned home on Sunday night.
The Penguins are 11-7-2 since the Winter Classic. They had a five-game winning streak that Washington ended with Neuvirth’s shutout on Feb. 6. Pittsburgh trails Philadelphia for the lead in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference by six points.
Beginning with that shutout loss in Washington, the Penguins are 2-4-1 in their last seven games. Both of the Pens’ wins in that span came in overtime. Pittsburgh’s last regulation win was a 3-2 home ice triumph over Buffalo on Feb. 4.
Pittsburgh is playing without top centers Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (knee surgery). Those two were among nine Penguins who were sidelined with injuries for Sunday’s game with the Blackhawks.
Pens center Jordan Staal, who missed the first half of the 2010-11 season because of injury, was hit in the neck by a shot from teammate Kris Letang in overtime of Sunday’s game at Chicago. There is no word yet on his availability for Monday’s game with the Caps.