February 23 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Capital One Arena
Time: 7 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Pittsburgh Penguins 9-6-1
Washington Capitals 9-5-3
After facing three different foes in the first three games of a five-game homestand, the Caps will conclude the quintet of contests at Capital One Arena with a pair of games against the Penguins in Pittsburgh's first visit to the District this season.
Over the weekend, the Caps split a set of back-to-backs. They were underwhelming in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday, and much more industrious in a 4-3 win over New Jersey on Sunday, a triumph that featured three power-play goals - two from T.J. Oshie and the game-winner from Alex Ovechkin - a single-game high on the season.
The Caps started a sluggishly in Sunday's win, spotting New Jersey an early power-play goal. Washington took over from that point forward, dominating the Devils and outshooting them 41-18 the rest of the way. But in the midst of that domination, New Jersey went up 2-0 when it forced a turnover from Washington's fourth line and converted on the ensuing 3-on-2 rush.
Down two goals but with 36 minutes left to play, Washington's ongoing diligence and compete level enabled it to draw three power plays, and the Caps exploited a beleaguered Devils penalty killing outfit on each of those opportunities.
"I think it was very important, especially the way it happened," says Caps center Lars Eller of Sunday's win. "[Saturday] it almost felt like we maybe thought it was going to be easier than it was. And [Sunday] it could easily have been a little bit of the same thing; going up against a team that maybe hasn't made the playoffs in a couple of years and thinking, 'Okay, young team,' as if we think it's going to be any easier, because it's not.
"And they're a really good team. They work hard, they play smart, they've got good players. And I think we were able to raise our game within the game; we maybe had an okay start, but I think we elevated our game as we went on. And we were able to execute on our chances, so I really liked the way we were able to turn it up a notch within the game today. A really big win for us."
Washington's power play has been consistent this season; the Caps haven't gone more than two games without scoring with the extra man, they've scored at least one power-play goal in 11 of 17 games this season; and in three of those 11 contests, they scored on their lone opportunity.
"I think Washington has a unique power play and one of the reasons is because they have arguably one of the best goal scorers of his generation - if not all time - with Ovechkin on that back-side flank," says Pens coach Mike Sullivan. "He is so dangerous in that area of the rink and it certainly forces teams to pay attention to him. But what makes that power play unique is that he is not the only threat on that group - they have multiple threats. They have a real good power play, they've got a lot of good players on it and so it's hard to key in on any one aspect. And I think that's what makes it as challenging as it is to defend."
The Capitals and Penguins have played four times previously this season, all in Pittsburgh. Washington's power play was limited to 2-for-15 in those four contests, and the Caps went 1-1-2 in the Steel City. In addition to the two games in Washington this week, the Caps and Pens are also slated to hook up here in the District on April 29-May 1.
Since dropping a 3-1 decision to Washington a week ago, the Pens have played only twice, sweeping a set of games from the New York Islanders on Thursday and Saturday. Pittsburgh is in the midst of a stretch of scheduling in which it plays 10 games against only two different opponents: the Caps and the Islanders.
"Obviously there is familiarity with all of these teams," says Pens coach Mike Sullivan. "We've played in the same division for a number of years now - there is familiarity with the personnel. But I do think there are ways where teams can make adjustments to be less predictable for opponents and be more predictable for yourselves, so there is a little bit of that that goes on.
"These are all good teams. There is such parity in our division right now; every night is a tough challenge and we're just trying to take each game as it come and trying to learn through the experience."
Heading into Monday night's slate of NHL activity, only five points separate the top five teams in the East Division. As the two teams head into this two-game set in Washington this week, the Caps lead the Pens by two points in the standings but Pittsburgh holds a game in hand.
With three wins in their last four games - including one against the Pens in Pittsburgh a week ago - the Caps took Monday off and will now aim to end the homestand on a high note and put some more standings distance between themselves and the Penguins.
"It's funny, there's no mental breaks per se at all this year," says Washington winger Tom Wilson. "You win one, you get a slight break and then you know another really good division rival comes in and you're going play two against them. You've got to look at the days off as a refuel and get ready. Those are going to be two battles and two really important games, and it's going to be a lot of that moving forward."