January 22 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center
Time: 12:30 pm
TV: NBC Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 10 a.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 10 a.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (25-19-2)
Pittsburgh Penguins (26-17-4)
Washington closes out a three-game road trip and plays its final road contest prior to the NHL’s All-Star break on Sunday afternoon when it pays the second of its two seasonal visits to the Penguins in Pittsburgh. The Caps earned a 3-2 overtime victory over the Pens on Oct. 12 in their first road game of the 2011-12 regular season.
Sunday’s game is the last of the four regular season meetings between the Capitals and the Penguins this season. Among all Eastern Conference foes, the Pens are the first team the Caps will have finished playing their season’s slate against. Boston is the only team the Caps have yet to face this season; the Bruins will be in town to take on the Capitals for the first time in 2011-12 on Tuesday night.
Each of the three previous meetings between the Caps and the Pens this season was a one-goal decision. The Caps have taken two of the games and the Pens won once, a 2-1 win on Dec. 1 in Dale Hunter’s second game as Washington’s bench boss.
The most recent meeting between the two teams came at Verizon Center on Jan. 11, with the Caps taking a 1-0 decision. Tomas Vokoun made 30 saves to blank the Pens in that game, but the tea leaves are indicating that Michal Neuvirth could get the call between the pipes on Sunday afternoon against the Penguins.
Neuvirth opened the Caps’ current three-game road trip with a 3-0 whitewash win over the Canadiens in Montreal on Wednesday. Neuvirth is 2-0-1 with two shutouts, a 0.65 GAA and a .977 save pct. in three career starts against Pittsburgh.
Vokoun got the net on Friday night in Carolina. He was splendid, but for the second game in a row, he got zero in the way of offensive support as the Caps fell to the bottom team in the Eastern Conference, 3-0.
Washington has scored just two goals in Vokoun’s last three starts and just seven tallies in his last five. In nine of his 12 losses this season, Washington has scored one or zero goals.
The puzzling and ongoing inability of the Capitals to sustain a consistent forecheck and to create offense becomes more of a growing concern with each passing game. Washington has had 30 or fewer shots on net in 17 straight games now, and it has somehow managed a 10-6-1 record in that span.
“It’s simple,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “It’s just getting pucks in and forechecking. That’s where you get all your offense from. Once you spend time in their end, you limit their shots, too. It goes hand in hand. You’ve got to get pucks in deep, protect the puck and wear other teams out with the cycle. When we get that, we’re fine.
“That’s the main thing. You’ve got to get it in there, get a good forecheck and keep the cycle alive. You can’t let it die. Throw pucks at the net and get some bodies in there.”
The Capitals have been outshot in eight straight games in terms of shots on goal and in 11 straight games in terms of shots directed toward the net. In 20 of their last 21 periods of hockey, Washington has managed a single-digit shot total.
“We had rushes, a 3-on-1, a 2-on-1,” says Hunter of the Caps’ performance in Friday’s shutout loss, “we made a play but never got a scoring chance out of it. We’ve definitely got to get more pucks at the net, and making the proper decision when you do get a chance. We’re blowing some chances, that’s what we’re doing. There are only so many chances in a game.”
When the Caps and Penguins last met, Washington extended Pittsburgh’s losing streak from five to six straight games. Since then, the Penguins have won five straight games and they’ve got injured defenseman Kris Letang back in the lineup. Letang has led the Pens in ice time in each of the two games he has played since returning after an absence of several weeks because of a concussion and a broken nose.
“He’s an all-star defenseman for them,” says Hunter of Letang. “When he comes back, he’s like a Mike Green for us. He’s a special player. He’s jumping up in the play, he makes a good play, he’s breaking out. He really helps their offense. We’re going to have to be aware of him, and [Evgeni] Malkin has been on a roll, too.”
Malkin has scored in every game since the Caps blanked the Pens on Jan. 11. He has eight goals and 10 points in his last five contests, all Pittsburgh wins.
“We’ll try to minimize his scoring chances,” says Hunter of the Capitals’ task in shutting down Malkin. “He’s a big guy that can skate and shoot and stickhandle, so we’ve got a pretty good combination there. You just have to be aware of him all the time. You can’t fall asleep for a second because he will be in on top of you and score.
“He’s got lots of speed,” begins Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik, in talking about Malkin. “He’s got quick hands and everybody knows he is one of the best players in our league. I think when you keep him outside and just play good with your stick, you have a chance to play good one-on-one. You have to be aware who is on the ice and who you’re playing against.”
Marc-Andre Fleury has played in 21 consecutive games for Pittsburgh, although two of those appearances were relief efforts. That streak is likely to hit 22 on Sunday against Washington.
Fleury won each of the first seven decisions of his career against Washington, but his lifetime record against the Caps is now 10-7-2. He has a 2.70 career GAA and a .911 save pct. in 20 career starts against Washington.