Feb. 2 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Capital One Arena
Time: 12:30 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Pittsburgh Penguins 32-14-5
Washington Capitals 35-12-5
Four months to the day after they opened the season in St. Louis, the Caps will finally face the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first time this season on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon. Excluding lockout seasons, this season marks the latest the Caps and Pens have ever faced one another for the first time in a campaign.
In the 2009-10 season, fans waited until Jan. 21 - in Washington's 50th game of that season - for the first meeting between the two rivals. This time around, the wait stretched into February and the Caps' 53rd game of the season. Sunday's game is the first of four between the two Metropolitan Division rivals this season; the Caps will face the Pens four times in their next 23 games, and all four meetings between Washington and Pittsburgh are weekend matinee affairs.
Video: Rinkside Update | Dmitry Orlov
Washington closed out the January portion of its schedule on Friday night in Ottawa, taking a 5-3 decision over the Senators. Alex Ovechkin continued on his torrid tear through the league, scoring two more goals to catch and pass Mark Messier for sole possession of eighth place on the NHL's all-time goals ledger. Ovechkin has scored 11 goals in his last five games, and with 695 career goals, he is soon to become just the eighth player in league history to reach the hallowed 700-goal plateau.
Sunday's game kicks off a four-game homestand for Washington, so there could be some history in the making here in the next 10 days in the District.
John Carlson had a pair of assists in Friday's game, as he moved past Calle Johansson (361) and into sole possession of the top spot on Washington's all-time list of most assists by a defenseman. Rookie goaltender Ilya Samsonov set aside 25 Ottawa shots to win his 11th straight decision, becoming the third goaltender in league history - and the first in 46 years - to reel off 11 straight wins.
Samsonov has also won 10 straight road decisions from the outset of his NHL career, becoming only the second goaltender ever to win 10 or more consecutive road decisions from the start of his career, joining ex-Caps netminder Brent Johnson on that extremely short list.
Coming out of the midseason break early in the week, Braden Holtby started the first two games for Washington. Samsonov will get a second straight start on Sunday when he faces the Penguins for the first time in his NHL career.
Video: Reirden | February 1
"I liked a lot of parts of his game [Friday}," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of Samsonov. "I think it's another challenge for him, his first game against Pittsburgh this year, and we'll see how he does."
Not only do the Caps and Pens renew their rivalry at long last on Sunday, but the two teams expect all four of these meetings down the stretch to be critical in deciding the Metropolitan Division. Washington owns a six-point lead in the standings over the Penguins, but Pittsburgh holds a game in hand and two months of the season remains.
Players on both sides always get pumped up for these Caps-Pens games, but with all four of them coming in the homestretch of yet another season in which Washington and Pittsburgh are among the top teams in the Metro Division and the Eastern Conference, the games should carry more gravity than if they were played in October and November. Last season, the Caps faced the Pens three times before Christmas, and the teams saw each other only once after the All-Star break.
"It's always nice games against Pittsburgh, a lot of fighting and a lot of battles," says Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who will skate in his 500th career NHL game against the Penguins on Sunday afternoon. "It's a rivalry, you know. We hate each other, they play in our division and we met in the playoffs so many times, so it's going to be fun.
"First game [against the Pens], and it's [an afternoon game] too, so it's going to be a little bit different to get started. I think we need to have a good start in that game, because sometimes we are a little sleepy. I think we need to make a focus on the first minutes in that game."
For the better part of the last decade and a half, the Caps and Pens have been among the league's elite teams. This season is no exception, as Washington owns the league's best record, and the Pens are the NHL's third-best team, behind only the Capitals and Boston.
"Every time you face a top team in the league, it's a test for you," says Pens defenseman Kris Letang. "Obviously we all know the rivalry between the two teams, and it's always a fun atmosphere. To go line up against them is going to be a fun challenge."
Pittsburgh has had a remarkable season, given that the Pens have been ravaged by injuries to key players throughout the season to date. Only five Pittsburgh skaters have played in all 51 games this season; Washington has had five defensemen play in every game, and the Caps have nine players who have played in all 52 games.
The Pens have lost a total of 213 man-games to injury this season, and they are still playing without four regulars: defenseman Brian Dumoulin and forwards Nick Bjugstad, Jake Guentzel, and Dominik Kahun. Pittsburgh did get blueliner Justin Schultz back for its Friday night game against Philadelphia, and he logged just under 17 minutes in his first game action after missing the previous 16 games with a lower body injury.
Despite playing without so many key players for large chunks of the season, Pittsburgh has lost as many as three straight games only once this season (Oct. 19-23). The Pens came out of their midseason break on Friday with a 4-3 overtime victory over Philadelphia. Sidney Crosby scored the game-winner in that one, giving the Pens their seventh win in nine games (7-2-0).