Key Observations Heading Into Game 48 Between the Capitals and Penguins

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

The Pittsburgh Penguins (27-12-8) enjoyed their first game back after the All-Star break with a nice 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets last night with none of their all-stars in the lineup. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were obviously unable to play last night because they both missed the All-Star Game due to lower-body injuries. Many thought Crosby might have been able to play on his bobblehead night yesterday, but he confirmed he would not have anyway. It is possible Crosby will return tonight against the Washington Capitals (24-14-9), but that has not been confirmed yet. Malkin, on the other hand, will probably miss a few more games since he was placed on injured-reserve. The Penguins also chose to start Thomas Greiss over Marc-Andre Fleury in last night’s victory in order for Fleury to start tonight’s divisional battle. Without Crosby, Malkin and Fleury, the Penguins played really good hockey against a tough road team in Winnipeg. After missing one game from Zac Rinaldo‘s hit, Kris Letang showed that he was healthy by recording five assists last night, which is a career-high for the defenseman. It was so much fun to watch him play like that. When he is at his best, he is so dominant. The Penguins needed him to step up last night and that’s exactly what he did. Pittsburgh also welcomed back Patric Hornqvist to the lineup after he missed about a month with a foot injury. Hornqvist played pretty well considering that he had only practiced twice with the team after his injury. He sealed the deal for the Penguins with an empty net goal in last night’s 5-3 win. The other goal scorers for Pittsburgh were Nick Spaling, Brandon Sutter, David Perron and Steve Downie.

The Capitals will most likely start Justin Peters in goal tonight since they started Braden Holtby against Columbus last night. Washington lost the game 4-3. After last night’s game, Pittsburgh traded Marcel Goc to the St. Louis Blues for Maxim Lapierre. This trade came out of left field, but I like the trade for Pittsburgh. The possession numbers for Lapierre are not that great compared to Goc’s, but that’s not a huge deal for a fourth line player. And besides, those possession numbers led to just 2 goals in 55 games as a Penguin. Goc was a good team player, but he was definitely on my list of disappointments. I expected more than 2 goals from him and he doesn’t provide much physicality either. Lapierre, on the other hand, has 2 goals and 9 points this season. He is a pest and will make Pittsburgh a much tougher team to play against. Sure, he may not be able to possess the puck as much as Goc did, but he will provide physicality and has the ability to win face-offs. Lapierre will provide more on the fourth line than Goc ever would have. Nothing against Goc, but look at last night’s game. The Penguins had Andrew Ebbett, Zach Sill and Craig Adams on their fourth line and were able to do some damage. None of those guys have good possession numbers, but they did have a great shift in the second period, which sparked the team a bit. Lapierre has the ability to do something like that too and he has performed well in the postseason, which is where this guy will be very valuable for the Penguins. It is unknown if he will be available to make his Penguins debut tonight in Washington.

Regardless, it’s amazing how much better Pittsburgh’s bottom-six is compared to last year. Spaling has scored 7 goals while Downie has scored 9. I don’t remember many bottom-six wingers getting that many goals last season. Jim Rutherford deserves a ton of credit for addressing exactly what this team needed. If everyone can stay healthy, this is going to be a tough team to beat in the playoffs.

In the last meeting between the Penguins and Capitals on December 27th, Washington shut out the Penguins 3-0 at CONSOL Energy Center. Eric Fehr had 2 goals while Hotlby made 31 saves in Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen‘s return to Pittsburgh. The Penguins hope to play much better than they did in that game tonight. They may have caught the Capitals at the right time too. After a 14-1-4 recent stretch, Washington has four consecutive games. However, they won’t have any trouble getting motivated to play against Pittsburgh. This could be a game where they start another long winning streak. They have the talent to do that.

The Capitals top line of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky have been red hot lately. Backstrom leads the team in points with Ovechkin not too far behind him. Burakovsky has flown under the radar a bit in Washington, but he has played well in the last few games. This Capitals team has really good depth too. Their third line with Fehr, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward is pretty impressive. John Carlson is also having a great year on the blue line. This Washington team is for real and tonight should be a good test for the Penguins.