December 1 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Morning Skate Report at 1 p.m., Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com, Two-Man Advantage at 5 p.m.,
Pittsburgh Penguins (14-7-4)
Washington Capitals (12-10-1)
Thursday night brings the Pittsburgh Penguins to town for the first of their two visits this season. The fierce former Patrick Division foes met on Oct. 12 in Pittsburgh with the Capitals prevailing 3-2 on a Dennis Wideman power play goal in overtime.
That October win in Western Pennsylvania was the third of Washington’s franchise-record seven straight wins to start off the 2011-12 regular season. The Caps have fallen on hard times since, winning just five of their last 16 (5-10-1), a tailspin that led the team to make a pair of coaching changes earlier this week.
Dale Hunter took over the bench boss duties from Bruce Boudreau on Monday, and Hunter made his NHL debut as head coach on Tuesday against St. Louis, becoming the fourth straight Washington head coach (following Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon and Boudreau) to make his NHL coaching debut with the Capitals.
The Hunter-coached Caps were on the short end of a 2-1 decision against the Blues, but that game was Washington’s first in its last nine in which it did not surrender three or more goals. The stretch of eight straight games with three or more goals against was the team’s longest such stretch since Feb-March, 2007, when Hanlon was still the head coach.
“It’s going to be all right,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble of the change. “You’ve got to break a couple of old habits and start some new ones. It’s good; you get a game in and then you have the tape to go back to and he can draw up the things [Hunter] noticed from last night’s game and show us today, what he’s talking about.
“I don’t think it will be too hard. It’s just a question of trying to break some habits. He’ll probably try and run us through some drills to help that. You could see at practice [Wednesday] we did some chips off the wall and things like that. That’s what he wants to see more of, plays down the wall. It’s just changing some thought patterns on guys a little bit and playing the way he wants to.”
After the St. Louis game, the Capitals announced they had signed former NHL defenseman Jim Johnson an assistant coach, replacing Bob Woods. Woods was in his third season as an assistant in the District. Johnson played two-plus seasons with Washington in the mid-1990s and was a teammate of Hunter’s during that span.
“I’m a coach that really believes in teaching,” says Johnson. “I don’t think you really become a coach until you learn to be a teacher. I’m a guy that really focuses on the details and making sure that I understand the fundamental skill progressions of those details to help these guys get better.”
While Washington was happy to witness some improvement in its own end of the ice, it also recognizes the need to start cranking up its moribund offense. The Caps have scored just a single goal in each of their last two games, and one of those was a penalty shot tally from Jason Chimera.
“You’ve got to take care of one thing before you worry about another,” says Knuble. “The fact is, the goals aren’t coming in bunches right now. At the same time, we’re giving up a few more than we need to if we’re not scoring a ton of goals. I think that’s the most important thing to take care of. I think that’s just a little more defensive commitment by each player and being a little bit more conservative and a little bit more sure of your play, and not just putting pucks out in the middle hoping. You better 100 percent sure, and if not it’s going down the wall and you come back and try and defend again.”
Pittsburgh comes to town as the top dog in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference. Buoyed by the return of star center Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are 3-1-1 in their last five contests.
For his part, Crosby has picked up right where he left off last season. The Penguins captain was in the midst of an historic offensive campaign when he was sidelined with a mid-season concussion that kept him on the sidelines for the better part of 11 months. He has recorded multiple-point games in four of five contests since returning, piling up 11 points (two goals, nine assists) altogether.
The Penguins managed Crosby’s ice time in his first three games, but he has skated over 20 minutes in each of the last two and is now averaging 18:38 per night over his five games this season.
“They’re playing great and obviously Sidney Crosby is a huge shot in the arm for them,” says Knuble. “We faced a good St. Louis team [Tuesday] and probably a better Pittsburgh team [Thursday]. You learn quickly because these mistakes that [Hunter] is trying to eliminate, they’ll appear and you’ll be exposed.
“We just want to play the way he is doing it. Maybe you can look it unfortunately or fortunately about who you’re playing. You want to embrace the challenge that it is going to be a tough team and you try and get yourself to do the new things and get a result against a very good team. You can walk away from that game and say, ‘Yeah, the new stuff will work for us.’”
Pittsburgh is 6-6-2 on the road this season, and the Caps have had the upper hand in the rivalry of late. The Penguins’ last regular season win in regulation over the Capitals came on March 8, 2009, a tightly contested, nationally televised affair that came to an end when Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom inadvertently put a puck in his own net late in the game.
That Pittsburgh victory appeared to deal the Caps’ playoff hopes a harsh blow, but Washington won 11 of its next 12 to secure a Southeast Division crown on the final day of the season in Boudreau’s first season on the job.
Since that game more than three years ago, Washington is 10-0-2 during the regular season against the Pens and it has outscored its rival by a combined 50-29 in those dozen games.
The Penguins are coming off a 4-3 loss to the Rangers on Tuesday night in New York. Pittsburgh managed 27 shots on goal against the Blueshirts in that one, breaking a run in which the Penguins had fired 30 or more shots on goal in 13 straight contests.