By: Jim Meinecke
Game 9 for the Penguins gets underway tonight as Pittsburgh takes on its first Metropolitan divisional opponent of the season on NBCSports Rivalry Night in the Washington Capitals. The Penguins enter the game after having some very mixed results in their last two contests. After being dominated for much of the Dallas game last Thursday, the Penguins bounced back to earn an overtime victory over the Nashville Predators, who are shaping up to be one of the better teams in the West. Now they face a Capitals team that is 6-1-0 to start the season, and were able to dominate the season series last year going 3-1-0 against the Penguins.
The Penguins enter the game looking to get better in a number of areas. They are currently 29th in the NHL in goals per game at 1.6. A number that could help raise the total goals is the power play, which is 30th in the league, or dead last. If there is reason for Mike Johnston to be concerned about his job, it starts with those two statistics. While the Penguins have managed to stay afloat at 4-4-0 so far, the team was built for offense. Having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Patric Hornqvist on the roster alone, justifies the team to be better than last or second to last. The power play has just been brutal for the Penguins scoring in only one of the eight games thus far. As bad as the goals per game numbers have been, the goals against numbers have been much better than expected. The defense was always the big question mark, but there have been some encouraging signs from the first eight games. Additionally, it looks like it is only a matter of time until Derrick Pouliot rejoins the team. Make no mistake, however, the only reason the goals against numbers look so glowing is almost solely due to Marc-Andre Fleury’s play. He is currently at a 2.02 GAA and a .932 save percentage. Moreover, he has bailed out his fellow teammates a number of times in what can only be described as system breakdowns. The main keys the Penguins need to focus on are scoring more and doing a much better job of puck management as a whole. News and Notes: Bobby Farnham was claimed off of waivers by the New Jersey Devils on Monday, and Beau Bennett will return to the lineup tonight after being sidelined since October 13. Bryan Rust will be out “a couple of weeks” with an arm injury. Eric Fehr is close to returning, but cannot return from LTIR until Saturday.
The Capitals enter tonight’s contest in quite a different situation from the Penguins. They currently lead the NHL in scoring per game with 4.1. They also sit at second in the NHL with their powerplay at 31.8%. They have scored a powerplay goal in four of their seven games, and multiple goals in three of those games. Braden Holtby has also played steady for the Capitals so far, and is 5-1-0 on the season. Evgeny Kuznetsov leads the Capitals with 11 points, and Alex Ovechkin has started off strong as well with 5 goals and 4 assists. While some of the Penguins off-season acquisitions have taken a bit of time to get acclimated, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams have hit the ground running with the Capitals. They have 7 points and 6 points, respectively, in their first 7 games. Justin Williams missed practice last night, but it appears he will be ready for the game tonight. The Penguins will have their work cut out for them against one of the league’s most explosive offenses. Fans will also notice many familiar faces on the defensive end with the Capitals. Of course Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen joined the Capitals last season, but Taylor Chorney has also played four games this season in the bottom defensive pairing.
The Penguins need this win tonight on so many levels. They have started the season a bit lackluster in terms of consistency offensively and defensively. Mike Johnston and his staff have a lot to prove to upper management and the fan base. Also, the Penguins had some well-documented struggles against the Metropolitan division last season. It’s clear they will not make it very far toward their goal of a Stanley Cup without having success in their own division. The Penguins will need a better night offensively with some power play production. They will need to win the special teams battle. And, maybe the biggest question in my mind, can the Penguins match the Capitals’ physicality without taking penalties? If the Penguins put the Capitals on the power play multiple times, this game could be over early.
Thanks for reading. Coverage starts at 8:00PM on NBCSports for Rivalry Night.