Finally, February - Washington's spotty January schedule is a thing of the past, and the Caps came through it quite nicely, going 6-2-2 in the first month of the calendar year.
"We had a real difficult schedule, we had a lot of injuries and we're actually in a pretty good spot considering all that was thrown at us, from the summer, through training camp, through free agency and all that, and then the injuries. I think our game has grown. I know we are a way better team today than we were game one."
While it seems as though the above quote - from Caps' coach Barry Trotz - could have been uttered within the last few days, it's actually from early November, just ahead of the Caps' last meeting with the Pens. The last sentence is even truer now; Washington has rolled up a 22-8-4 mark beginning with its 4-1 win over the Pens in the last meeting between the two teams nearly three months ago.
Video: Barry Trotz Pregame | February 2
Kid Stuff - Rookie Washington blueliners Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos have each logged a half a season's worth of games in the league now. Bowey has suited up for 42 contests and Djoos for 41, as the Caps are on target to have two rookie blueliners play in more than 50 games since 1980-81 when they had three freshman blueliners: Howard Walker, Darren Veitch and Jim McTaggart.
Bowey has a dozen assists, tied for fourth among all rookie NHL defensemen, and he is averaging 13:30 per night in ice time. As the season wears on, he notices an uptick in competition on the ice; the games are a bit more intense than they were when he debuted in October.
"I'm starting to realize how much tighter it is in the second half and how tight everyone plays," says Bowey. "So you can't take any nights off, especially with how tight it is in our division.
Djoos, who debuted with a two-point game (one goal, one assist) against the Penguins in Washington on Oct. 11, sees it similarly.
"I know that all of the players in the league are great," says the 23-year-old blueliner, "and with just the slightest mistake you're probably going to give up a good scoring chance. That's probably the thing you have to look out the most for."
Video: Caps 365 | February 1
When the Caps had those three rookie defensemen back in '80-81, they were an annual also-ran team that had yet to make the Stanley Cup playoffs in the franchise's brief history to that point. This season, the Caps sit atop the Metro Division standings as they ease Bowey and Djoos into regular duty on their blueline.
Bowey has played mainly with Brooks Orpik while Djoos has been partnered with John Carlson, and the two vets are helping the kids to feel their way through the league as they face many of the opposition players for the first time.
"Now you're really starting to notice the top players," says Bowey. "They're really coming to play nowadays, and the top two lines are really going to be trying to be dominant every night. And the third and fourth lines are all good at contributing either offensively or defensively, and good at pressuring us defensemen and getting up the ice.
"Every decision has to be made a little bit quicker, and everything happens a little bit faster. That's what makes it fun. You can't take a night off, and that's what the NHL is all about. It's been great so far, I'm just trying to build and make sure I can do the best I can to give our team a chance to have a good push in the playoffs."
Djoos has three goals and 10 points, and his plus-10 mark is second best on the team.
"Keep watching and learning every day," he says, when asked what his goals are for the season's stretch run. "I like playing with Johnny; he's been playing great and he's easy to play with for me. He helps out a lot. I'm just going to keep trying to be better every day."
Power Trio - Pittsburgh's top three scorers this season are Phil Kessel (59 points), Sidney Crosby (56) and Evgeni Malkin (55). Those three players are also the league's top three power-play scorers, with Kessel at 33 points and Crosby and Malkin following with 28 and 26, respectively.
Pittsburgh's 26.7% power play efficiency rate is not only tops in the league this season, it's currently the 20th best mark for any NHL club in the last half century and the second best mark - and just by a hair - since 1990-91. Washington posted a 26.8% success rate on the power play in 2012-13 - the league's best since '90-91 - but that was over a 48-game schedule in a lockout-abbreviated season.
Video: Rinkside Update | Tom Wilson | February 2
When Pittsburgh defeated the Capitals 3-2 in Washington on Oct. 11 in the first meeting between the two rivals this season, it did so on the strength of three power-play goals. The Pens have scored only one even-strength goal in two games against the Caps this season.
Clearly a key for the Caps in Friday's game is to minimize as much as possible their trips to the penalty box.
"Don't take any penalties," says Trotz. "I mean, it's plain and simple. If you want to nullify a real good power play, just don't let them go on the power play."
Pittsburgh averaged only three power play chances per game in January, but clicked on 12 of 36 for the month for a lusty 33.3% success rate. Those dozen power-play goals represented more than a quarter of the Pens' total offensive output last month.
"They have so many options," says Trotz. "They move around, they can thread the puck through four or five legs, get it to the back post, they can go through seams, they can shoot it, and they're hungry around the net. They've got net presence. So they have a really good power play and they have a lot of different looks, a lot of movement.
"Ideally, you stay out of the box. If you can't do that, then you've just got to be aware of all the different looks, and hope that you can get a save when you need it."
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net for Washington on Friday in Pittsburgh, two nights after he earned his 26th win of the season with a 27-save performance against the Philadelphia Flyers at Capital One Arena. After a brief three-game personal losing streak (0-1-2), Holtby has won each of his last two starts.
Holtby will be aiming for his 100th career road victory against the Pens; he has earned 118 of his 217 career victories on home ice. Lifetime against the Penguins, he is 8-8-2 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.69 GAA and a .916 save pct. Of the 48 career goals he has surrendered to the Pens in 19 career appearances, only 33 were at even-strength.
Matt Murray will man the crease for the Pens on Friday. Murray has missed time because of injuries and the untimely death of his father, but he stopped 40 of 42 shots on Tuesday against the Sharks to pick up his 16th win of the season in his most recent start, and that game against San Jose was his first NHL action in more than three weeks.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Murray is 3-3-0 in six regular season starts, with a 3.72 GAA and an .876 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Penguins to look when they take the ice on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
65-Burakovsky, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
18-Stephenson, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
25-Smith-Pelly, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
12-Simon, 87-Crosby, 17-Rust
62-Hagelin, 71-Malkin, 72-Hornqvist
59-Guentzel, 15-Sheahan, 81-Kessel
34-Kuhnhackl, 39-Dea, 75-Reaves
22-Hunwick (upper body)
37-Rowney (upper body)
43-Sheary (lower body)