Thursday's game in Pittsburgh against the Penguins marks the earliest these two teams have met in an NHL season since they met in the season opener of the – Sidney -- 1990-1991 season.
In that October 5, 1990, game the Penguins rode a pair of goals from Mark Recchi and another pair from Kevin Stevens to a 7-4 win. John Cullen had five assists for the – Sidney – winners. Dale Hunter and Kelly – Sidney – Miller scored for the Caps, and Mike Liut allowed all seven goals on 29 shots for the – Sidney —
OK, what’s going on here? What’s with this “Sidney” nonsense? Who are you?
“I.T. Nerdwell, NHL systems coordinator.”
You have an explanation for this “Sidney” twaddle?
“We’re testing a new system… ‘CROS’ – the Crosby Repetition Operating System. Since Sidney Crosby hasn’t yet appeared in a game this season, the league thought it important to keep his name in fans’ minds as he recuperates from being struck down in dastardly fashion by that goon, David Steckel, last season.”
And this is what you came up with?
“Yes, inserting the name, ‘Sidney’ in such unobtrusive fashion provides a subliminal cue to readers of any NHL stories or blogs that Sidney Crosby is still the important name in the NHL and…”
Wait, “subliminal cue?” As if we don’t see Crosby’s name enough on a daily basis in print and pixels with variations on the question, “when is he coming back?”
“The league doesn’t think so. We have done studies that show that the saturation point at which NHL fans become tired of hearing the name ‘Sidney Crosby’ is 238,391 instances per 24-hour period.”
What sort of studies?
“Well, asking Commissioner Bettman, surveying the Canadian hockey media. That sort of thing.”
That explains a lot. And you haven’t reached that saturation point yet?
“Close – we’re a couple of thousand short, but we’re working diligently on that.”
Oh, I have no doubt.
The Penguins, owners of a 3-0-1 record, host the Capitals at Consol Energy Center, an anagram for “Enter Cyclone, Goners.” Except that the last – and as yet, only – time the Caps visited CEC, it was the cyclone that was Alex Ovechkin’s shot that resulted in the game’s only goal, and Michal Neuvirth playing as calmly as if he was the eye of the storm, stopping all 39 shots he faced in a 1-0 shutout.
Last season the Penguins were a team that, aside from losing the services of both Sidney Crosby (Damn! Now we’re doing it!!) and Evgeni Malkin for half the season, parlayed hard work and perseverance into a fourth place finish in the Eastern Conference (and most wins), one point behind Eastern Conference leader Washington. They accomplished that feat in no small part on the basis of an excellent record in extra time. The Penguins were 15-8 overall games decided after 60 minutes (no team won more extra-time games), including a 10-3 record in Bettman’s Brainchild (again, no team won more). Here is how the Pens fared last season compared to the Caps…
(click on pic for larger image)
Pittsburgh seems to be picking up where they left off last season, two of their first four games having gone to extra time, both to the Gimmick (a 1-1 record). And, with Crosby still out and Malkin nursing a lower body injury, the Caps might be facing a club that resembled very much the one they shutout in the last two meetings of last seasons’ series. Which is not to say the Penguins are without weapons, they just don’t happen to be the ones you might expect.
When hockey fans woke up on Wednesday morning and checked the league statistical tables, the leading scorer was – drum roll – “Kris Letang.” With a goal and five assists, he led all league scorers. He also was tied for the league lead in assists, was tied for second in plus-minus, and was tied for fifth in shots on goal. He also happens to be eighth in the league as this short juncture in ice time, so Caps fans will see a lot of him on the ice. In 14 career games against the Caps Letang is 1-4-5, but he drags a minus-11 into this game, too. One thing to watch; in his last eight games against Washington he has recorded an almost Ovechkinian number of shots on goal – 27, 16 of those coming in four games last season.
Then there are the two Penguins among a logjam tied for seventh in the league in scoring – Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis. Both have recorded a goal and three assists in the early going, both are plus-2. Neither, however, has been especially successful against Washington. Staal is 6-1-7, minus-4 in 19 career games against the Caps, while Dupuis is 2-4-6, minus-5 in 24 career games against Washington. Staal was held without a point in three games in last year’s season series, and Dupuis was scoreless as well, with a plus-1. Dupuis was responsible for the only standing point the Penguins took from the Caps last season, scoring in the trick shot portion of a 3-2 win, his goal clinching things in the seventh round.
You Can’t Spell “Goon” or “Goal” without “Go”
And when the sign flashed “GO” to start the season, Matt Cooke – perhaps the “reformed” Matt Cooke? – jumped out of the starting gate. He leads the Penguins with three goals – one even strength, one power play, and one shorthanded – and has done it having taken a single penalty (an interference minor) in four games. He is another player with unremarkable career numbers against the Caps – 1-3-4, minus-4 in 19 games, including a scoreless season series against the Caps last year.
MVP – Most Valuable Person
Mike Babcock has more wins (so does Bruce Boudreau, for that matter), Lindy Ruff has been around longer, but there might not be a more effective coach in the NHL at the moment than Dan Bylsma. Certainly, none – not even Nashville’s Barry Trotz – got more out of his team than did “Disco Dan” last season. Sidney Crosby missed the last 41 games of the season, and Malkin missed all but one of the last 35 games. In those first 41 games the Penguins had a record of 26-12-3 for 55 points. In the last half of the season, without Crosby and almost all of it without Malkin, the Pens were 23-13-5 for 51 points, hardly a hiccup. It was a team with only one player finishing with more than 50 points (Crosby, as it turned out) and only one with more than 25 goals (again, Crosby). It was a team that reflected its coach – hard working, gritty, and persistent.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: James Neal
With apologies to Matt Cooke, Neal is the go-to goal scorer for this team until such time as Crosby returns to the ice and Malkin returns to full health. He has not yet displayed the scoring touch expected of him when he arrived from Dallas last season with defenseman Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. In 24 games with the Pens he is 3-6-9, minus-3, although he does have two of those goals in the Penguins’ first four games this season. One thing to watch for is that for a winger expected to put up some goals, he doesn’t manufacture a lot of shots on goal. In 238 career games he has only 595 shots (2.50/game), although he is up a tick with Pittsburgh with an average of 2.66 shots in his 24 games with the Pens.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
In the absence of the two Penguin stars, it is Ovechkin’s stage tonight. It has been a rough six weeks or so for him, with the unfortunate tragedy befalling his countrymen on the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team and the passing of his uncle. Add to that the pressure that is laid upon him to put last year’s disappointing numbers behind him, and it makes for a difficult start to the year. But he has had a couple of days off to prepare for an opponent against which he has performed well. In 24 regular season games against the Penguins he is 18-14-32, plus-14, with nine power play goals. Curiously, only one of those goals is a game winner – that coming in the 1-0 shutout in the only meeting of these teams at Consol Energy Center so far. Ovechkin has had a knack for shining when the light shines brightly (at least in the regular season). Tonight we will see if he still has the gift.
Score First. That’s pretty much a golden rule in the NHL in any circumstances, but the Penguins had the fifth best winning percentage in the NHL when scoring first last season. They have scored the first goal in three of four games so far this season and are 2-0-1 (yes, they won the game they fell behind first, too).
Power Up. The Penguins led the league in penalty killing last season. They are 16-for-16 in killing penalties so far this season. They’re good at this. Part of it is their depth on defense – they had four defensemen log an average of at least two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game last season. But they have very active forwards as well. The Caps have had issues with crisp passing on their power play. The Pens will give them neither space nor time to dawdle.
Flummox Fleury. Marc-Andre Fleury has not had a particularly sparkling record against the Caps in his career – 9-6-2, 2.90, .908, with one shutout. Last year, he was more a victim of bad luck than bad play, going 1-3-0 against the Caps despite a 1.99 GAA and .929 save percentage. But his start this season could be described as “solid,” if unspectacular. He allowed three goals to Vancouver, which is no sin, but in his other two games he faced teams – Calgary and Florida – that won’t scare many people with their offense. He allowed five goals on 54 shots in those two games (.907).
In the end, both teams will be getting their first real test in the East this season. But the Caps have owned this series over the past several seasons – Crosby and Malkin, or no Crosby and Malkin. The Caps are 11-1-2 in their last 14 regular season games against the Pens, including a record of 7-0-0 in Pittsburgh in three different venues – Mellon Arena, Consol Energy Center, and Heinz Field. They’ve done it by being able to score (3.86 goals/game in this run) and, when need be, by playing defense (holding the Penguins to three goals in four games last season, shutting them out twice).
The Caps have bolstered their third and fourth lines, giving them a peskiness and an offensive threat they didn’t have there last season. But this game would seem likely to turn on whether the Caps can solve the Penguin penalty kill. If they don’t, they are playing Pittsburgh’s game, and the result is likely to bring that long successful run to an end. But you already know what we think the likelihood of that happening is…
Caps 3 – Penguins 2