January 16 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paint Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: WFED 1500 and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 29-9-5
Pittsburgh Penguins 26-11-5
Washington heads to Pittsburgh on Monday to take on the Penguins in what will be the second half of a set of back-to-back games for the Capitals. The Caps will come into Monday night's game against the Pens on the heels of a pair of blowout shutout victories, having dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers by a 5-0 count on Sunday afternoon to extend their winning streak to nine. Two nights earlier, the Caps cruised to a 6-0 win over Chicago.
Coupled with a pair of Washington whitewashes earlier in the month, the Caps have now authored four shutouts in a six-game span for the first time in their NHL existence, this according to the good folks at Elias Sports Bureau. The Capitals haven't permitted an even-strength goal in their last 18-plus periods of hockey.
The Caps' nine-game winning run matches the team's longest since it set a franchise record with 14 straight victories in 2009-10, a winning streak that was just underway at this time seven years ago.
Perhaps most impressively, the Caps' nine victims (eight of them unique) have included three division leaders and the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Seven of the foes vanquished during this streak were in playoff position when the game was played, and Washington has outscored its opposition by a combined 40-11 during the streak. Eight of the wins were achieved in regulation and none in the shootout, and the Caps own a remarkable 35-6 goal differential at even strength during the life of the streak.
Sunday's game against the Flyers was a tight 1-0 affair heading into the third period, and the Caps had managed just five shots on net in each of the first two frames. But Washington erupted for four goals on five shots on net in a span of five minutes early in the third period, chasing Flyers goaltender Steve Mason to the bench.
Andre Burakovsky's unassisted power-play goal in the second stands up as the game-winner, but Justin Williams and Matt Niskanen scored twice each during that five-minute stretch in the third, all but salting away Philipp Grubauer's second shutout and eighth win of the season. Grubauer made 24 stops on the afternoon, including 13 in the first frame before the Caps started to come alive.
"I think we're having some good fortune along the way, too, right now," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "I think Nisky's [second goal] was a little bit of a knuckle puck, and sometimes they don't go in. They all even out, and we always talk about that. In the course of a year, when you're getting chances and not having success, if you stay with it you will have success."
"But we had some good fortune. [The Flyers] hit a post, they delivered one from the red line that was close. When we were maybe not struggling but when we weren't scoring, a lot of those pucks weren't going in. Right now, they're sort of going in our favor."
The Caps' current run stretches back to early December, when they set off on a prolific spree of virtually a quarter of a season in length that now stands at 16-2-2 over their last 20 games.
"It's been fun," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "I think guys are enjoying coming to the rink right now. We're in this every other day we play a game type of schedule right now and I think that's' where we play our best. Guys are enjoying that. We're getting some offense, but we're also getting some shutouts mixed in there too, so that's a good sign.
"We're playing really good hockey. There is still room to grow I think in the long term, but it's pretty fun right now."
Niskanen is correct about the scheduling. Washington is at its absolute best when the games come every other day, as they have more often than not. The Caps will play 44 games on exactly one day's rest this season, and they're now 21-2-2 in the first 25 of those contests.
Pittsburgh won its first game back in action after enjoying its bye week in the first week of the New Year, defeating Tampa Bay by a 6-2 count at home on Jan. 8. But since then, the Pens have dropped three straight games for the first time this season.
The Penguins' short three-game slide is their longest of the season, and it started last Wednesday at Verizon Center with a 5-2 loss to the Capitals. That game opened a three-game road trip for the Pens, who went on to lose 4-1 to the Sens in Ottawa on Thursday and 6-3 to the Red Wings in Detroit on Sunday. Pittsburgh has been outscored by a combined total of 15-6 during the life of its losing run, and it has scored only three even-strength goals in those three games.
Of more immediate concern for the Pens is the health of defenseman Kris Letang, who left Saturday's game in Detroit with an injury. The Pens are already playing without defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who is out with a broken jaw.
Because of the Pens' bye week and an injury, Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray's start against the Sens in Ottawa was his first in just over two weeks. Murray gave up four goals on 33 shots in the loss to the Senators. He is 13-4-1 on the season, and 6-2-1 since the start of December.
Marc-Andre Fleury returned to the net on Saturday in Detroit, surrendering six goals on 34 shots against the Wings. He allowed four goals on 29 shots last Wednesday in Washington when the Pens fell to the Caps. Fleury is 13-7-4 on the season and 7-2-1 since the beginning of December.