March 7 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena
Time: 1:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Washington Capitals 40-20-7
Pittsburgh Penguins 39-21-6
Mired in a funk for more than a month and plagued by a malaise for more than 30 games now, the Capitals continue a three-game road trip on Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Washington's third straight Metropolitan Division game in less than 72 hours comes on the heels of two straight ugly setbacks, the first time this season the Caps haven't won at least one game of a back-to-back set.
Just under two weeks ago in Washington, the Caps carried a four-game losing streak (0-3-1) into a home game against the Penguins. They won that contest 5-3, the beginning of a short run of success in which they won three of four games. But after falling 5-2 to the Flyers at home on Wednesday and 6-5 - in overtime - to the Rangers in New York on Thursday, the Caps find themselves sharing the top spot in the division with Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh is just three points back of the Caps and Flyers, and a mere nine points are currently separating the top five teams in the Metro. There are a dozen points separating the top seven teams in the division, and all seven still hold viable playoff hopes.
Washington is now 14-15-1 in its last 30 games, and it is 5-8-2 since the start of February. Of at least equal concern at the moment is its performance against its fellow Metro Division denizens. Since winning three straight divisional games ahead of their midseason break in mid-January, the Caps have dropped six of their last seven (1-5-1) against Metro clubs, with their Feb. 23 win over the Penguins as their only victory in that stretch.
After Mika Zibanejad's five-goal game left the Caps on the short end of a 6-5 overtime decision in Manhattan on Thursday, Caps coach Todd Reirden was asked about his frustration in losing these games against teams Washington could face in the playoffs a month from now, and whether his team needs to get to another level.
"We get scoring from other people," says Reirden. "We got some scoring [Wednesday] night from some different players. We are starting to see some things come together a little bit with some lines, and then we just keep getting in our own way - self-inflicted problems.
"They're meaningful games. There is going to be lots of emotion in the game. It goes both ways. And that's preparing even for Saturday [against the Pens], because it's going to happen again on Saturday, an emotional game. We have some players in our room that haven't been through it; they haven't been through playoff hockey, they haven't been through rounds, they haven't won Stanley Cups.
"So we've got to get way more heart into these situations, and when the pressure and the emotion goes up, then our response needs to be different. And that's something we're going through the process of learning, and it's certainly not any fun right now. But I can only hope that the pain that this leaves after games like this helps us play better on Saturday, and continues to teach us lessons that we can learn through down the road.
"Because as I've alluded to all year, I've been on teams that have been through no issues for years - whether as a player as a coach - and those teams don't win at the end. It never happens. You've got to go through adversity, you've got to go through bad times, you've got to learn some tough things, and our group's learning them, and it's certainly not any fun. It would be a lot better to leave here with the two points, but that's not the case. So we need to continue to learn and go through the process."
Washington's win over the Penguins in D.C. last month was Pittsburgh's third straight loss at the time, its longest regulation slide since mid-October. The Pens then went out to California and came back east empty-handed, lugging a six-game regulation losing streak. But recent games over Ottawa and at Buffalo - and the return of a few of their many injured players - have the Pens back on track.
Since they faced the Caps late last month, the Penguins have seen defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino and forward Nick Bjugstad return to their lineup. They also added future Hall of Fame forward Patrick Marleau from San Jose and wingers Connor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues from Buffalo in deals ahead of the NHL's Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Saturday's game marks Washington's first visit to Pittsburgh in nearly a year. The Caps last played here on March 12, 2019 in a 5-3 Penguins victory.