January 11 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Pittsburgh Penguins 26-8-5
Washington Capitals 26-9-5
Two of the league's hottest teams clash in Washington on Wednesday when the Pittsburgh Penguins make their second and final regular season visit to Verizon Center. The contest opens a three-game homestand for the Capitals, who will reach the halfway point of the 2016-17 campaign at the conclusion of Wednesday's game.
Washington carries a six-game winning streak into Wednesday's game, and the Caps are now 13-2-2 in their last 17 contests, dating back more than a month. The Capitals come into this week's homestand on the heels of a successful two-game road trip to Eastern Canada, a journey that resulted in a 1-0 win over the Senators in Ottawa on Saturday and a 4-1 victory over the Canadiens in Montreal on Monday.
In the second minute of the win over Ottawa, T.J. Oshie scored what would prove to be the lone goal of the game, doing so on the Caps' first shot on goal of the contest. Nicklas Backstrom earned the primary assist on that goal with a typically sublime backhand dish, becoming the first Capitals player ever to amass 500 assists.
"Incredible," says fellow Swede and Caps winger Andre Burakovsky. "Just to be a part of what he has been doing and just to be a part of his life has been a pleasure for me. Every day I come to the rink and enjoy watching him play the game and do all his magic. Five hundred assists - not bad. I think it's incredible that he has 500 assists in what is it, eight or nine years? Whatever it is, it's unbelievable. I'm really impressed and I'm really happy for him."
Two nights later in Montreal, Backstrom got the Caps on the board early with a first-period rebound goal, a tally on which Alex Ovechkin recorded the primary assist. Ovechkin later assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov's game-winning goal, and then accepted a feed from Backstrom for the 544th goal of the Caps captain's career, and Backstrom's 501st helper.
With that goal, Ovechkin moved into a tie for 29th place on the league's all-time list with Maurice "Rocket" Richard, and he did so in the city where Richard played his entire NHL career. In addition to tying Richard, who retired in 1960 as the NHL's all-time leading goal scorer at that time, Ovechkin moved to within a single point of 1,000 for his NHL career. He will become the first Russian-born player to reach that milestone.
"Yeah, that's huge for him," says fellow Russian Kuznetsov. "He needs one more [point] and then we're going to celebrate a little for sure, because that's huge for our organization and obviously for our country."
"It's pretty impressive," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby of Ovechkin's night in Montreal. "I thought he shot the puck really smart tonight in creating goals, especially his last one. That's a goal scorer's goal who understands the situation and how to freeze a goalie and to catch him while he's traveling. That's what he's done his whole career and it's been impressive to watch."
Holtby was nicked for a power-play goal in the third period of Monday's game, the only goal he has surrendered in his last three starts. The Caps netminder is 4-0 with two shutouts, a 1.15 GAA and a .956 save pct. in five starts since the turn of the calendar to 2017.
For the seventh straight game, the Capitals limited the opposition to 30 or fewer shots on net. Facing a Montreal club that had exceeded 30 shots on goal in eight of its previous nine games, Washington held the Habs to just 23 shots on net in Monday's game.
"In zone, we didn't give up a whole bunch," says Holtby. "And that's usually where an abundance of shots come from - up high, creating havoc that way. We gave up most of theirs off rushes and that sort of thing. That was key, especially in our own zone, because we knew they work extremely hard. They can expose you if you don't have five guys committed in the [defensive] zone, and we did tonight."
Wednesday's meeting is the third of four between Washington and Pittsburgh this season. The Pens edged the Capitals 3-2 in a shootout on Oct. 13 in Pittsburgh, in the opening night contest of the 2016-17 season. Just over a month later, the Caps pummeled the Pens 7-1 in Washington, getting a pair of goals from both Oshie and Backstrom in that game.
Oshie missed Monday's game against the Canadiens because of an upper body injury sustained in the Ottawa game. He is day-to-day and because the Caps had an off day on Tuesday, his status for Wednesday's game remains unclear until at least Wednesday's morning skate.
Pittsburgh carries a five-game winning streak of its own into the game against the Caps. One of the reasons the Columbus Blue Jackets couldn't put much distance between themselves and the rest of the pack in the Metropolitan Division during the life of the team's recent 16-game winning streak was that other Metro clubs like Pittsburgh, Washington and the New York Rangers were nearly as hot.
While the Jackets were on their spree, the Penguins more than held their own with a 12-2-2 run. Pittsburgh just came out of its bye week, rolling over the Tampa Bay Lightning by a 6-2 count in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Since the beginning of December, the Penguins are 13-1-2. The Pens' lone regulation loss during that span was a 7-1 pasting at the hands of the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Dec. 22.
Heading into Wednesday's game, the Pens' total of eight regulation losses is tied with Columbus for the fewest in the league. The Caps and the Minnesota Wild have nine regulation losses each; they're the only other teams in the league with single-digit totals.
Five of the Penguins' regulation setbacks have come by a margin of four or more goals, and yet Pittsburgh still maintains a plus-29 goal differential. The Pens are 12-6 in games decided by three or more goals, and their total of 18 such games is exceeded only by Tampa Bay and Nashville (19 each).
After the Pens practiced in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, captain Sidney Crosby was asked whether Wednesday's game carries any more meaning because of the one-sided loss the Pens suffered in the last game played between the two clubs.
"I think it's good to have that in your mind if you're looking for a little bit of motivation," Crosby responded. "I think we knew that it wasn't a good game, and we gave them a lot of power play opportunities. They're a really good team; they're playing well right now. We should use this game as a good challenge for us and make sure that we continue to play the same way that we've been playing here."
Crosby is also closing in on his 1,000th career NHL point. The league's leading goal scorer with 26 in just 33 games this season, Crosby has 982 career points, leaving him just 18 shy of a grand.