For the last decade and then some, games between the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins have tended to draw a good deal of attention and eyeballs. And rightfully so, the rosters of both teams have been liberally dotted with some of the league's best players for a significant portion of that time.
But Wednesday's clash between the Caps and the Penguins at Verizon Center gleams with a little more shine than usual. Both teams come into the contest with winning streaks; the Caps have won six straight while the Pens have taken five in a row. Washington is 13-2-2 in its last 17 games, and the Penguins have an identical record over their last 17; the Pens are 13-1-2 in their last 16 games.
Most notably and most importantly, the two teams go into the game even in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division standings with 57 points, just three points behind front-running Columbus. The Blue Jackets, Penguins and Capitals, respectively, own not only the best three records in the Metro but also the best marks in the entire NHL. The records of the Pens (26-8-5) and the Caps (26-9-5) are almost identical; Washington has played one more game and has one more regulation loss.
Watching the Metro race in the first half of 2016-17 has been like watching an arms race. The division's fourth-place team (the New York Rangers) is currently on pace to amass 111 points. Last season, the Capitals were the only team in the league with that many points; they finished with 120.
"You see why they're Stanley Cup champions," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "They're a deep team, they play with pace, they get good goaltending and they've got some game-changers.
"They've been all in a little bit more [than earlier in the season]. They had a long year last year, playing so deep into the summer and winning a Cup. For me, it probably wasn't unexpected that they would have a little bit of a slow start and then they would get their game back together, and they have. They're a very good hockey team, no question."
As if all that weren't enough, Caps captain Alex Ovechkin is knocking at the door of a significant milestone as well. Ovechkin is one point shy of becoming the 37th player in NHL history to reach 1,000 points with the same franchise and the 84th player to reach that milestone overall.
"It's a real big number," says Ovechkin. "Obviously it's nice to get it at home in front of fans and my family. It's going to be a big moment."
Full Strength - Caps right wing T. J. Oshie returns to the lineup tonight after a one-game absence because of an upper body injury. Oshie, who had a shorthanded goal, a power play goal and four points against the Pens in the Nov. 16 game here in D.C., is third on the team with 13 goals this season although he has missed eight of Washington's 40 games.
"I feel great and I'm ready to go," says Oshie.
The Caps returned forwards Liam O'Brien and Paul Carey to AHL Hershey on Tuesday, giving rise to hope that Oshie would be able to return tonight. Oshie took part in Monday's optional morning skate in Montreal, and probably could have played if the situation demanded he do so.
"It was more precautionary," says Trotz of holding Oshie out of Monday's game in Montreal. "He was very close to going [on Monday]. It was a coaches' and trainers' call, but he wanted to go the other day. He wasn't far off."
Scoring Spread - Wednesday's game pits a pair of teams with five 10-goal scorers to this point of the season. Sidney Crosby's 26 goals leads the league for the Penguins, who also boast Evgeni Malkin (16 goals), Phil Kessel (13) and Bryan Rust and Connor Sheary (10 each). Patric Hornqvist is on the verge of joining them with nine.
Ovechkin leads the Capitals with 19 goals, followed by Marcus Johansson (14), Oshie (13), Justin Williams (11) and Nicklas Backstrom (10).
Four other NHL teams - two of them in the Metropolitan Division - can also lay claim to five double-digit goal scorers: Chicago, Columbus, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay.
20/20 Vision - Looking back at the Caps' first 40 games this season, the team has shown improvement in most areas in comparing the first 20 games to the last 20.
The Caps picked up 28 points (13-5-2) in their first 20 games and have garnered 29 (13-4-3) over their last 20 contests. The one-point improvement isn't significant, but the Caps have scored more goals (59 in last 20 compared to 55 in first 20) and have given up fewer (43 in first 20 compared to just 37 in last 20) along the way, resulting in a better goal differential.
Washington's power play has improved ever so slightly over the last 20 games. The Caps went 10-for-60 (16.7%) with the extra man in their first 20 games and are 11-for-64 (17.2%) in their last 20.
The Caps' penalty killing outfit has shown more significant improvement, going from 53-for-64 (82.8%) to 72-for-80 (90%), although the increase in the number of penalty killing missions the Caps have faced is somewhat alarming.
Just watching the team over these last 20 games, they seem to be more than a single point better than they were over the first 20. But their overall consistency is impressive.
"It's hard to say," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, when asked in which areas the Caps have made the greatest strides in the last 20 contests as opposed to the first 20. "I think we've had some individuals play better. I think collectively, we've tried some things. We've tried to play a few situations just a little bit differently, and maybe that took some time just to get on the same page. When you try new things, sometimes you look slow because you're a little unsure; you're hesitating a little bit.
"Recently, I think we've had guys playing more instinctively and quickly. It seems like there is better puck support all over the rink. Guys are working away from the puck to either get in position defensively or support each other with the puck. It seems like we have better support coming out of our zone and through neutral ice.
"We've worked pretty hard at generating some offense in-zone off cycles, using the points more and getting some movement. Net front stuff, we've put a big emphasis on that and that's paying off already. Sometimes you preach that stuff and it doesn't pay off right away, but the net front stuff has paid off huge for us. I think we've improved a lot there."
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net tonight for Washington, and he'll be seeking his 20th win of the season. He is 19-8-4 on the season with five shutouts, a 1.90 GAA and a .931 save pct. He has permitted two or fewer goals in 22 of his 32 starts, and Washington is 16-2-4 in those contests.
In his last 15 starts, Holtby has been even better with a 1.55 GAA and a .945 save pct. Since the calendar flipped to 2017, he has a 1.15 GAA and a .956 save pct. in five starts.
During his regular season career against the Pens, Holtby is 6-7-2 with two shutouts, a 2.59 GAA and a .916 save pct
Although Matt Murray has been cleared to play after sustaining an injury just ahead of Pittsburgh's bye week, Marc-Andre Fleury gets the start for Pittsburgh tonight. Fleury is 13-5-4 on the season with a 3.07 GAA and a .910 save pct.
Recently, Fleury's numbers have been much better. In his last 10 games (eight starts), he is 7-0-1 with a 2.52 GAA and a .925 save pct. Lifetime against the Capitals, he is 20-11-2 with two shutouts, a 2.56 GAA and a .914 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals to look tonight and a guess at how the Penguins might line up as well. Pittsburgh has some defensemen dealing with some illness issues, and some of their lineup decisions will be made closer to game time, according to coach Mike Sullivan:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
43-Sheary, 87-Crosby, 17-Rust
62-Hagelin, 71-Malkin, 72-Hornqvist
14-Kunitz, 13-Bonino, 81-Kessel
23-Wilson, 7-Cullen, 16-Fehr
8-Dumolin (broken jaw)