Caps Clash With Pens
Caps seek to spark late season surge on Saturday night in Pittsburghby Mike Vogel @vogscaps / washingtoncaps.com
March 25 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 The Fan
Washington Capitals (34-31-8)
Pittsburgh Penguins (35-27-10)
The Capitals have four road games remaining in the 2022-23 regular season, and each of them is a one-game journey within the Eastern time zone. On Saturday night, the Caps head to Pittsburgh for their lone visit of the season. They'll take on the Penguins in an important tilt for both of these Metro Division rivals.
Without defenseman John Carlson in the lineup for the last three months, the Capitals were unable to string together as many as three straight wins at any point, and they tumbled from a wild card playoff spot to 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings. Carlson returned to the Washington lineup on Thursday against Chicago, and the Caps put a 6-1 hurting on the Hawks.
With time growing short on their season and only nine games remaining on the slate, the Caps' only hope of extending their playoff streak to nine straight is to put together a sustained winning streak that includes victories over the teams just ahead of them in the standings, and to get a little help along the way.
Carlson's return on Thursday enabled the Caps to reach their pinnacle of health with the team as currently constituted, and it put all six of the remaining members of Washington's 2017-18 Stanley Cup championship team on the ice at the same time for the first time this season. For each of their first 72 games this season, Washington was missing at least three players - and usually more - from its lineup. And with the team tumbling down the standings as the result of a six-game slide in February, five players - including '17-18 Cup champs Lars Eller and Dmitry Orlov - were dealt away ahead of the NHL's March 3 trade deadline.
Down to just two players - Connor Brown and Carl Hagelin - on its injured list with Carlson's return, the Caps scored twice in each period and twice on the power play, and they killed off all five Chicago man advantages with aplomb to roll over the Hawks. Six different Caps found the back of the net and Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin each had a goal and an assist in their first time on the ice together this season. The game marks the 32rd time the trio has recorded multiple points in the same game over the course of their careers, and Washington improved to 22-0-1 in those games.
"As a team, we played a good game," says Carlson. "It's nice to get some jump and get some real nice plays by everyone. I think anytime you come back, you want to win; that's the most important thing.
"It was special to be back. It feels good."
Now, the Caps need to start stacking those wins up if they hope to be playing beyond their April 13 regular season finale against New Jersey. Staying healthy for these last nine games would help; the Caps have had 20 different players miss time because of injuries this season and they're just shy of 400 man-games lost for the season.
"It's been unfortunate with a lot of guys missing time, and some real tough injuries to watch, obviously," says Caps goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who also returned to action on Thursday following a two-game absence because of an upper body ailment. "It's been nice going to the rink every day and seeing the work that everyone's putting in when they're out, to possibly get back in the lineup. And to have everybody for the first time, I think it showed what we're capable of as a group when we're all out there together."
"Carly is an elite player, and he's only going to get better," says Caps' center Nic Dowd. "That was his first game in three months, and he was - in my opinion - one of the best players on the ice. He is a special player, and to get [Kuemper] back as well, I think both of our goalies have played really, really well this year, and it's just nice to have both of them available."
Of Washington's nine remaining games, four are against teams directly ahead of it in the standings, starting with Saturday's skirmish with the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
"We've got nine games left," says Caps; center Dylan Strome. "I think [Carlson] is excited to be back, and we're excited to have him back. Those are the things you can't control; a lot of teams are dealing with injuries. Sure, we've dealt with a lot of injuries this year, but that's the way she goes sometimes.
"We're happy to have him back, and we've got nine games left to go on a run and do something special here. If we get into the playoffs, we're going to be one of the hottest teams to get in. We're excited for the challenge, and obviously a huge game coming up on Saturday."
Saturday's meeting between the Caps and Pens is the third and final game between the longtime rivals this season. In Washington's nearly half-century existence in the NHL, there have only been two previous seasons in which the Caps and Penguins have met only thrice, and both were shortened seasons.
In the lockout-abbreviated 2012-13 season, the Caps and Pens met three times over a 48-game slate. In the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign, the teams were slated to meet four times but never got to the fourth one; the season was suspended in March with both Washington and Pittsburgh having played only 69 of an 82-game schedule.
Pittsburgh currently occupies the second Eastern Conference wild card playoff slot the Caps are aspiring to reach. The Penguins hold a four-point lead over the Capitals, and Pittsburgh also has a game in hand, making Saturday a must-win game for Washington.
The Pens are in a bit of a tailspin at the moment; they've dropped five of their last six games, including each of their last two at home. The Caps and Pens have split their previous two meetings this season, both of which occurred in D.C. Pittsburgh prevailed 4-1 on Nov. 9 and the Caps eked out a 3-2 shootout victory on Jan. 26. Carlson missed both of those prior games against the Pens this season.