January 11 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 7:30 pm TV: NBCSN Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 5 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Pittsburgh Penguins (21-16-4)
Washington Capitals (21-17-2)
Two nights after finishing off a fruitless West Coast trip with losses in San Jose and Los Angeles by identical 5-2 scores, the Capitals return to the friendly confines of Verizon Center to start a four-game homestand, their longest to date this season. Washington will have a five-game homestand from Feb.28-March 8, its longest overall in 2011-12.
First up are the Pittsburgh Penguins, in town on Wednesday night. In most recent seasons, a Capitals-Penguins meeting in mid-January would be a marquee match-up featuring two of the league’s top teams, rosters rife with stars on both sides. Both clubs have had more than their share of struggles lately, both on the ice and in the infirmary.
For Washington, Pittsburgh’s visit marks the end of the first half of the season and it is an important four-point game. Heading into the NHL’s Tuesday night slate of activity, Washington is running 10th in the Eastern Conference standings, two points behind the eighth-place Penguins.
Washington is nine points from the basement of the Eastern Conference standings, and 14 points from the penthouse.
It’s hard to imagine either Mike Green or Nicklas Backstrom playing in Wednesday’s game against the Penguins. Both players were sent home early from the team’s West Coast trip.
Green left Saturday’s game with San Jose with a recurrence of a groin injury originally sustained in a Nov. 11 contest against the Devils in New Jersey. Backstrom missed both games on the trip after taking a Rene Bourque elbow to the head in a Jan. 4 game against the Calgary Flames. Bourque received a five-game suspension from the NHL for his flagrant elbowing of Backstrom.
While Washington has struggled to a 7-12-1 record on the road this season, the Capitals are 14-5-1 in their first 20 home dates. The Caps have won four straight at home and six of their last seven.
The Caps took a four-game winning streak on the road with them last week, but they were unable to build on it. After playing a strong first period against the Sharks in San Jose, the Caps lost Green to injury midway through the second frame, and things generally spiraled downward from there.
Both the Sharks and the Kings were able to consistently get bodies to the net and create chances and second chances, and the Capitals surrendered 10 goals in the last five periods they played out west.
After allowing a combined total of just five goals during the life of their four-game winning streak, the Caps allowed five goals in each game of the trip. Washington has permitted five or more goals 11 times already this season; it gave up five or more goals only six times in the entire 2010-11 campaign.
The Caps flew home on the red-eye from Los Angeles, departing immediately after Monday night’s loss to the Kings. They’ll have Tuesday off to help erase jet lag, and they’ll hit the ice for Wednesday’s morning skate prior to taking on the Penguins. Wednesday’s game against the Penguins marks just the sixth time in the Capitals’ 37-year history that Washington plays a home game just two nights after returning from the final game of a West Coast trip.
Late Tuesday night, the Caps announced the recall of defenseman Tomas Kundratek from Hershey of the AHL. Kundratek, a 22-year-old native of the Czech Republic, was a third-round (90th overall) choice of the New York Rangers in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. The right-handed shooting, second-year pro was obtained from the Rangers in a straight up deal for minor league forward Francois Bouchard on Nov. 8, 2011.
After totaling two goals and 14 points in 77 AHL games in the Rangers’ chain, Kundratek tallied six goals and eight points in 21 games at Hershey. He will sport sweater No. 36 with Washington, digits last donned by forward Colin Forbes in the District back in 2005-06.
Wednesday’s game is the third meeting between the Caps and Pens this season. Washington took the opener of the season’s series between the two clubs in Pittsburgh on Oct. 12, a 3-2 overtime triumph in which Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun made 39 saves.
Pittsburgh returned the favor at Verizon Center on Dec. 1, earning a 2-1 win over Washington in Dale Hunter’s second game behind the Capitals’ bench. The Caps are now 9-7-2 under Hunter’s direction.
The Capitals have successfully killed off 27 straight shorthanded situations on home ice, dating all the way back to a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers on Nov. 25. That was the last home game in which former Caps coach Bruce Boudreau manned the bench for Washington.
The Penguins are struggling of late; they are lugging a five-game losing streak with them on their visit to Washington. The Pens absorbed a 5-1 home ice loss to the Senators on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have been outscored by a combined 18-6 during the life of their current losing streak.
Wednesday’s game opens up a three-game Southeast Division road trip for the Penguins. Pittsburgh visits Florida and Tampa Bay after it takes on the Capitals.
Pittsburgh is currently playing without four of its top players. Penguins center Sidney Crosby has appeared in just eight of the team’s 41 games this season as he is still suffering from concussion-like symptoms he originally sustained in a pair of collisions more than a year ago.
Center Jordan Staal has a knee injury that will keep him on the sidelines for a number of weeks and James Neal has a broken foot. Neal’s 21 goals this season are tops on the Penguins and fifth in the NHL.
Top defenseman Kris Letang has been out since late November with a broken nose and concussion. The Penguins managed to play well even without top pivots Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last season, but they’ve struggled without Letang in the lineup.
Pittsburgh is 12-6-4 with Letang in its lineup this season, and it is just 9-9 in the 18 games the defenseman has missed to date.