The Washington Capitals take to the ice this afternoon to renew the most intense rivalry in the NHL as they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center in a…
“Most intense rivalry? Surely you just, cousin.”
Fearless…but it’s Caps and Penguins.
“This isn’t the most intense rivalry in the Eastern Conference. Nay, this isn’t the most intense rivalry involving bird mascots.”
You think there is a more intense rivalry involving the Anaheim Ducks?
“I’m speaking figuratively, cousin. This just isn’t the rivalry it was in days gone by.”
Days gone by. You talk about this rivalry as if its best days were in the age of black and white. These are two teams that played in the Winter Classic just a year ago.
“Yes, and look at how different these teams look today.”
Well, there are the injuries.
“Well, there is that… Pittsburgh is missing two top centers, the Caps are missing their top center and top defenseman.”
And their place in the standings…
“A year ago, the Penguins were 29-15-4 and in fourth place in the East; the Caps were 26-14-8 and in fifth place. Now, they’re hanging on to playoff spots.”
“OK, the Caps are.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the Penguins found themselves on the outside looking in at the top-eight in the East. On January 11th, Pittsburgh was 21-17-4 and in ninth place in the East, suffering a six-game losing streak in the process. The last of those losses came in a 1-0 shutout at the hands of the Caps at Verizon Center. But since then the Penguins have won five in a row. Part of that is benefitting from beating up on three of the four Southeast Division teams in the Eastern time zone – wins over Florida, Tampa Bay, and Carolina. But they also took down the high-flying New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden on Thursday before getting past the Montreal Canadiens in a Gimmick on Friday.
As a result of their five-game run, the Penguins have climbed back into fifth place, four points behind the fourth-place Ottawa Senators with three games in hand. It is the Caps who are hanging on to a playoff spot by the thinnest of margins. With Florida winning a trick shot competition in Winnipeg last night, the Caps fell to eighth place in the East, one point ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Here is how the teams stack up against one another, numbers-wise:
(click pic for larger image)
The Caps can leap frog past Florida once more with a win and, for those who remember when this was a rivalry, win the season series against the Penguins. It would be the fourth straight season that the Caps would win the season set against Pittsburgh.
2. Two weeks ago, head coach Dan Bylsma said that forward James Neal would be out “weeks” with a broken foot. As it turned out, Neal did not miss a game. He has three goals in the Penguins’ five-game winning streak, his 24 goals for the season closing in on a career best (27 in 78 games with Dallas in 2009-2010). He has three goals in six career games against Washington.
3. The Penguins are getting scoring in this streak from unexpected places. Richard Park has doubled his goal total during the streak by scoring a pair, and Dustin Jeffrey has scored his first two of the season as part of this streak.
4. Have the Penguins had to deal with injuries this season? Through 47 games they have already gone through 30 skaters, 12 of them being defensemen. No defenseman has played in all 47 games for the Penguins, and only two – Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland – have skated in more than 40 games.
5. Only Boston enjoys a higher winning percentage (.941) in games decided by three or more goals than the Penguins (.786). The Penguins are one of eight teams with more three-or-more goal wins than one-goal wins.
2. The last three games for the Caps have been decided by identical 3-0 scores, the Caps losing two of them. The last time that the Caps had three consecutive decisions decided by a shutout was January 12-16, 2002 when they won consecutive 1-0 shutouts over Florida and Boston before dropping a 2-0 decision to Montreal.
3. Folks might have an impression that the Caps find themselves behind the eight-ball early in games. However, they have scored the first goal of the game 23 times and allowed the first goal of the game 23 times.
4. When the season started you might have expected that Dmitry Orlov would spend the year honing his skills at Hershey, perhaps getting a cup o’ coffee with the Caps here and there. Well, he now has appeared in the fifth most games among Caps defensemen (28), one more than Jeff Schultz. He is fourth in scoring among the Caps’ blueliners (1-7-8) and is 11th in scoring among all rookie defensemen despite playing in fewer games than eight of the ten players ahead of him.
5. Tomas Vokoun is 2-1-0 against Pittsburgh this season, 1.32, .962, and one shutout.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Matt Cooke
Once a player as likely to appear in a photo posted in a Post Office, Cooke had a conversion of sorts this season – no major penalties of any kind, and he is tied for seventh on the Penguins in minor infractions. He has been sent to the penalty box only once in his last 17 games. Those 17 games also represents the length of time he has gone without a goal. He has but two points in that span and is a minus-5. He is 1-3-4, minus-5 in 22 career games against Washington.
Washington: Matt Hendricks
The task of stirring the pot for the Caps appears to have fallen to Matt Hendricks. When the Caps visited Montreal and faced Rene Bourque for the first time since Bourque put Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup, it was Hendricks to squared off with Bourque 75 seconds into the game. In the Caps’ last game Hendricks dropped mitts with Carolina’s Derek Joslin less than five minutes into the contest. Hendricks has had four fights in his last seven games. What he has not had is a point in his last dozen games. He has only one (a goal against Buffalo on December 26th) in his last 35 games. He is doing what he can to try and spark the club, but the Caps have had trouble getting much in the way of contributions on offense from the 3rd or 4th lines. He is in that group.
1. Oh, hell…what’s the point of this? We know what needs to be done. We’ve been reading it and hearing about it for the last month… get pucks to the net!
In the end, it’s Caps-Pens, but it’s not “Caps-Pens.” Pittsburgh is a hard-working team, but they are riding the hot hand of Evgeni Malkin at the moment to halt the slide that came with their recent six-game long streak. Their five-game winning streak has them merely treading water since Christmas (6-6-0). The Caps remain an enigma, until you look closely enough. A team with Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin – even with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green out – should be more of a threat on offense than they have been. But look closely, and this is not a very deep team offensively. They are spending too much time in their own end and putting too much pressure on their goaltenders to perform. This game might turn on whether the Caps can stifle Malkin, who does not have a point in either of the last two games these teams have played against one another.
Caps 2 – Penguins 1