Key Observations Heading Into Game 61 Between the Penguins and Capitals


By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

Another Wednesday, another “Rivalry Night” for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It seems like the Penguins have been involved in a ton of the Wednesday night games with an 8:00 PM start. However, some of them haven’t been exactly rivalries. However, tonight’s game will certainly be a “rivalry” game. After the Penguins and Capitals played in the 2011 Winter Classic, the rivalry between them seemed to fade a little bit. Sidney Crosby had concussion issues, Alex Ovechkin had some ups and downs and the two teams never met in the playoffs again after 2009. The intensity of the rivalry is definitely making a comeback and that’s a good thing for the sport. Ovechkin is having a great year and seems to be really engaged on both sides of the ice. While most Penguins fans don’t want to hear good things about the Russian winger, let’s face it: The NHL is better when the likes of Ovechkin, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nicklas Backstrom are all playing at a high level. Seriously though, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so excited to watch these two teams play.

In their last meeting a little over a week ago, Ovechkin slashed Norris candidate Kris Letang in the back of the foot, which caused Letang to fly into the boards. The incident caused a ton of frustration from the Penguins, which came back to bite them in that game. In the third period, Joel Ward broke a 1-1 tie by scoring a 5-on-3 power play goal at 15:47 of the period. John Carlson added an empty net goal to seal the deal for Washington. This season series has been extremely difficult for Pittsburgh this season as they have lost all three meetings and have been outscored by the Capitals 10-1. The only player to score against Washington for the Penguins this season is Steve Downie. Crosby and Malkin have been held scoreless. This is going to be a “measuring stick” game for both teams as the Penguins (34-17-9) only lead the Capitals (33-18-10) by one point in the Metropolitan Division standings. The Capitals aren’t the only team the Penguins have struggled with in the division. Their 7-11-4 record against Metro division opponents is concerning and needs to change fast if this team wants to make a playoff run.

Did the Ovechkin incident tick some people off? Sure, it did, but the Penguins have to put that behind them and focus on getting two points in this game. Mike Johnston needs to have his team ready and focused from the drop of the puck. The Penguins have had some slow starts recently and it really has affected the team in a negative way. This team is not as offensive as it used to be, so Pittsburgh cannot get behind early. Crosby and Malkin need to step up as well. Ovechkin has notched 3 goals and an assist in the season series this year while the Penguins’ two top centers have not recorded a single point. To this point, Ovechkin and Backstrom (3 assists total in the 3 games) have been much better than Crosby and Malkin. That needs to change tonight in order for the Penguins to avoid getting swept in the season series.

Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff could return tonight, but it will be up to Johnston to decide if that’s the best decision for the team. Regardless, health is no longer an excuse for this Pittsburgh team. Johnston’s line adjustments the last couple of games have been very encouraging as David Perron and Patric Hornqvist have been skating with Crosby on the first line while Blake Comeau and Chris Kunitz have been skating with Malkin on the second line. Perron seems to be at his best on the left side while Hornqvist seems to be a perfect fit on a line with Crosby. They’ve dominated together so I see no reason why that line should change. A lot of people think that Kunitz needs to be with Crosby, but I couldn’t disagree more with that. Kunitz hasn’t looked all that great this season. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Perron and Hornqvist are ahead of him on the depth chart. Remember a few years ago when Kunitz, Malkin and James Neal were one of the NHL’s top lines? Kunitz and Malkin have chemistry too and I’m sure Malkin doesn’t mind having an Olympian on his line. These two lines should not be messed with unless the Penguins make a big trade for a top-six forward, but that doesn’t seem likely.

Speaking of line combinations, I think it’s a good idea to see how these two teams stack up against each other in that regard. The Penguins’ projected lineup when healthy looks something like this:




Here are the lines the Capitals have been using:




Which lineup would you rather have? It’s a tough question to answer. Holtby and Fleury have both had great years, but I think Fleury gets the edge there. Ovechkin and Backstrom have been a great combo in addition to Crosby and Malkin so we have a tie there. Both teams also have a pretty strong defense as well. The big difference between these two teams is the third line. Ward, Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr have notched a total of 65 points (36 goals) combined this season for the Capitals while Brandon Sutter, Beau Bennett and Nick Spaling have registered 54 points (24 goals). The numbers don’t lie. The Capitals clearly have a much better third line than the Penguins. Laich, Ward and Fehr all are established NHL players who all know their role. It’s crazy that Washington has gotten 36 goals from their third line. That’s scary stuff and if that trend continues, they will be tough to beat in the playoffs. This Capitals team is very deep and cannot be taken lightly.

It’s not the end of the world if Pittsburgh loses this game tonight, but it certainly would make some people push the panic button after another loss to a Metro division opponent. Enjoy the game, everybody. It should be a lot of fun to watch these two teams go at it to re-ignite this rivalry one again.