The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals renew one of their most bitter rivalries on Sunday afternoon at Capital One Arena in a nationally televised contest. The Caps return home after disposing of a pesky Ottawa Senators team in a 5-3 win on Friday night, while the Penguins play their third straight Metropolitan Division game after splitting a home-and-home series with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Then and Now…
The Capitals will take on the Penguins for the 226th time in the regular season on Sunday, the most times for any opponent facing the Capitals. Washington has a 98-101-10 (16 ties) record against the Penguins in the all-time series and a 57-43-5 (nine ties) record on home ice. Since 2005-2006, the Caps are 24-23-9 against Pittsburgh overall and 12-12-4 on home ice. This will be the first of four games against the Penguins over the next 23 games for the Caps.
Active Leaders vs. Opponent…
Evgeni Malkin is one of the most accomplished talents in this era of hockey. The problem has never been his production, but rather his presence. Malkin missed only four games over his first three seasons, all in his rookie year in 2006-2007. Since then, he has missed 189 of 837 regular season games, almost a quarter of the Penguins’ regular season schedule (22.6 percent). It has mattered. In the games in which he did appear over that span, he averaged a 37-58-95 scoring line per 82 games, and his 1.16 points per game over that period are third in the league to Connor McDavid (1.33) and teammate Sidney Crosby (1.25).
The odd part of Malkin’s absences this season so far is how the Penguins performed in them. Their record in the 13 games Malkin has missed to date is 9-4-0. And, they scored 43 goals in those 13 games (3.31 per game), including posting seven goals on three separate occasions (October 12th against Minnesota, October 13th against Winnipeg, and October 29th against Philadelphia).
When in the lineup, Malkin has been a consistent contributor, posting points in 29 of the 38 games in which he played. In the 29 games in which he has points, the Pens are 20-6-3, while they are 3-4-2 in the nine games in which he was blanked. It might be worth noting that in 19 games he has played on the road this season, he has been held off the score sheet only three times, all in losses (to New Jersey, Boston, and Philadelphia). Malkin is 19-44-63, minus-1, in 44 career games against Washington.
Kris Letang sits a top virtually every statistical category in team history among defensemen for the Penguins. He is first in games played (790), goals (123), assists (403), points (526), power play goals (41), shorthanded goals (four, tied with Larry Murphy and Randy Carlyle), and game-winning goals (23). He is second in team history among defensemen in power play points (206, to Paul Coffey with 225), and average ice time per game (23:56, to Sergei Gonchar with 25:23).
However, Letang is another player who has missed large chunks of the Penguins’ schedule over the years. Since he appeared in all 82 games in 2010-2011, he has missed 182 of the 673 games on the Penguins’ regular season schedule, 27 percent of all games played by the Pens. His absence also matters. In the 491 games in which he did play since the 2010-2011 season, Letang is still tied for 11th overall in goals scored by defensemen (94, with Alex Pietrangelo, in 644 games), is eighth in that group in assists (303), seventh in points (397), and seventh on power play points (155). Among defensemen who played in at least 100 games over that span, Letang ranks second in points per game (0.81, to Erik Karlsson with 0.89).
His absences this season have had an effect. The eight games he missed this season due to a lower body injury came in a stretch in November over which the Penguins went 4-1-3, although in two of the wins – over the New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks – Pittsburgh was extended to extra time. He has points in 23 of the 43 games in which he has played so far, the Penguins with an 18-5-0 record. In the 20 games in which he was held without a point, Pittsburgh is 10-8-2. Letang is 7-12-19, minus-22 (worst against any opponent), in 37 career games against the Caps.
Washington is not the only team in the league having its dark night of the soul over its goaltending situation. The Caps aren’t even the only team in the division with an issue at that position. So far this season, the Penguins have split their starts at the position almost down the middle, Matt Murray getting 27 of them, and Tristan Jarry getting the other 24. However, while Murray has the past performance – finishing fourth in Calder Trophy voting in 2016-2017, two Stanley Cups, already sixth in team history in wins (188) despite this being only his fifth NHL season – Jarry has had the numbers. In his 26 appearances overall, he has a record of 17-8-1, 2.19, .928, and three shutouts, all of those numbers being superior to Murray’s (15-6-4, 2.84, .900, one shutout). And, it was Jarry who was given sweater to for the All-Star Game last month.
Recently, things have become even more muddled for the goalies. Murray goes into this game with a 5-0-0, 2.55, .925 record over his last five games. On the other hand, Jarry has lost two of his last three decisions and stopped 80 of 88 shots in the process (.909). Jarry has allowed three goals in seven of his last eight games after allowing three or more in only four of his previous 18 appearances. Murray is 7-4-0, 3.56, .890 in 11 career appearances against the Caps, while Jarry has yet to face Washington in his career.
1. Pittsburgh has eight wins since January 1st, tied for third most in the league. However, only three of those wins have come in regulation, tied for 19th in the league.
2. Although the Penguins have an 8-3-1 record since January 1st, they have scored 35 goals and allowed 35 goals.
3. Pittsburgh has eight goals scored in overtime this season, most in the league.
4. The Penguins have taken 16 of their 51 games to extra time this season, tied with Calgary and Philadelphia for most in the league. Their 11 wins in extra time games are most in the league.
5. Pittsburgh has a 7-12-1 record in games where they trail after two periods. Their winning percentage (.350) is second-best in the league (Washington: 7-10-1/.389).
1. Game 53 of the regular season is the latest on the regular season schedule that these teams have ever faced one another. In 44 seasons before this one, the teams met within the first ten games of the regular season 20 times, and on six occasions, the Penguins were the Capitals’ regular season opener opponent.
2. The Caps have the second-worst record in the Metropolitan Division on home ice when leading after two periods (11-1-2). Only New Jersey is worse (5-3-4).
3. On the other hand, the Caps have the second-best record in the league when trailing on home ice after two periods (3-5-1), trailing only Boston (5-2-3).
4. The Caps, despite being tied for the sixth-fewest number of goals against in the third period on home ice this season (21), are only fifth-best in the Metropolitan Division in that statistic, trailing: Columbus (12), Carolina (17), Pittsburgh (19), and Philadelphia (20).
5. Washington has the third-highest times shorthanded per game played on home ice so far (3.28).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Bryan Rust
The Penguins have suffered a number of injuries to key personnel this season. Defenseman Kris Letang has missed eight games, center Evgeni Malkin has missed 13 games, winger Jake Guentzel has missed 12 games (and counting; he suffered a shoulder injury in December requiring surgery and is expected to be out 4-6 months), defenseman Brian Dumoulin has missed 28 games (and counting after suffering lacerated ankle tendons). That means others have had to step up, and perhaps none have done so as much as Bryan Rust.
Rust was a player of modest potential, a third-round draft pick of the Penguins in 2010 who played four seasons at Notre Dame before taking up with the Penguins’ affiliate at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of the 2013-2014 season. He split time between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh the next two seasons before sticking with the parent club in 2016-2017. He displayed a decent scoring touch, averaging just over 15 goals in his first three full seasons with the club. This year, however, getting a heavier ice time load in part due to injuries elsewhere on the roster, he has blossomed. Averaging 19:57 per game (his previous high was 16:03 in 2017-2018), Rust has already set a personal high in goals scored with 22, a total that leads the team, and 44 points in just 37 games (he missed 11 games to a hand injury in October and another three to a lower body injury in December).
Rust also has had substantial special teams responsibility. He is the only forward on the team to average more than two minutes per game on power plays (2:20) and more than a minute per game on penalty kills (1:35). Rust is 4-4-8, even, in 13 career games against the Capitals.
Washington: Tom Wilson
The Capitals-Penguin rivalry features a lot of talent on both sides of the ice, but it also features a fair amount of nastiness. In the recent years of the rivalry, no player seems to be more hated among Penguin fans than Tom Wilson. He understands his place in their hearts. It is not as if Wilson has had eye-popping numbers against the Penguins in the six seasons he has contributed to this rivalry. Only once did he have two points in a season series (he was 1-1-2 in three games in 2017-2018). And despite his fearsome reputation, only once in six seasons did he reach double digits in penalty minutes for a season series (23 minutes in four games in 2014-2015). Wilson does bring the hurt, though. In 22 career games against the Penguins, he averages almost 18 hits per 60 minutes, most of any Capital against the Penguins since he came into the league in 2013-2014. And, as if to antagonize the Penguin faithful even more, he has a knack for taking Penguins off the ice. He has drawn 4.42 penalties per 60 minutes in his career against Pittsburgh while taking only 3.73 penalties per 60 minutes.
Wilson comes into this game on a hot streak of late. He had a three-game goal streak stopped in the Caps’ 5-3 win over Ottawa on Friday night, but he did have an assist to extend his points streak to six games, his longest of the season. It is part of a longer run over which he is 3-7-10 in his last nine games. Wilson is 2-2-4, minus-3, in 22 career games against Pittsburgh.
In the end…
There are no secrets, no mysteries between these teams. Since 2005-2006, the Penguins have won more games (32 to 24 for the Caps in the regular season, 14 to 12 for the Caps in the postseason), but the Caps have the more recent Stanley Cup win, and at the expense of the Penguins. Both clubs know that getting to the Stanley Cup final means going through the other, as it has been in all three of the instances the Penguins did it since 2009 and in the Caps run to the Cup in 2018. It has become more than just “Ovechkin vs. Crosby.” It is one of the enduring rivalries in the NHL, and this one, a contest between one of the hottest teams in the league and the team with the best record, should be something.
Capitals 4 – Penguins 3