The schedule maker didn't deal us a Caps-Penguins game in 2019-20 until Super Sunday afternoon when the two teams finally tangle in the District; today they'll play the first of four matinee matches in a span of 50 days. Since their last meeting in Pittsburgh on March 12, 2019, the Caps have played 64 regular season games without seeing their rivals from Western Pennsylvania.
This is the latest - in terms of both date and game number - the Caps and Pens have ever gone into a season without seeing one another, and it should whet the appetite for the upcoming matches between the two Metropolitan Division heavyweights the rest of the way. The Penguins will return to the District three weeks from today, and the Caps will visit Pittsburgh on the afternoons of March 7 and March 22.
As they take to the ice this afternoon, the Caps lead the Pens by six points for the top spot in the Metro standings, but Pittsburgh holds a game in hand. Despite a spate of injuries to key players that started early in the season and has yet to dissipate, the Pens come into Sunday's game with the league's third-best record, from the perspective of points pct.
"They've done a good job of drafting certain types of players, acquiring certain types of players - college guys, free agents - different ways they've come about this type of player," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, a former Pittsburgh assistant. "But it's a hard-working and competitive guy that maybe isn't always the most dynamic in terms of skill set, but they work, and they are they're able to fit in. They can fit in on their fourth line, and then they're able to go up and play with some other top guys as well.
"Being very familiar with [Evgeni] Malkin and [Sidney] Crosby, I know they like players that will get in and forecheck for them, that create space and go in and win puck battles, and then they get available. And when they have the puck, they want somebody that wins a race to get available. So those are the type of people that work really well with those two players, and they seem to have found those guys that fit that niche, to be able to have success alongside those players.
"They've done an outstanding job and, their goaltending has been [good]; [Tristan] Jarry has been very good for them and obviously [Matt] Murray is a Stanley Cup winner in the net, and that gives him some security back there as well."
Rivalry Renewal - The Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry has deep roots; the two teams have been in the same division for the lion's share of Washington's four and a half decades in the league. Games between the Caps and Pens routinely attract the eyeballs of players and fans around the league, and it's an intense rivalry that players don't necessarily feel until they're part of it.
Washington has a number of new faces in its lineup this season, and those players will get their first taste of the contentious and competitive Caps-Pens rivalry today.
"That's something that I was thinking about [Friday] night after the [Ottawa] game, with the mindset changing to Pittsburgh," says Reirden. "We do have some players that haven't been through it yet, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they react and respond. I like the people that we've added, I like the physicality that we play with now, I like the heavy forechecking game and a little bit more extended offensive zone play than we've done in the past.
"I like that style of play, and I'm looking forward to seeing it against one of the best teams in the league in Pittsburgh as well. It'll be good, and again that's where you really can start to evaluate some of your new adds. I'm really happy with lots of our new additions and guys that haven't played against them before, and now we'll get the chance to have a look at it [Sunday] afternoon."
Caps winger Garnet Hathaway grew up as a Caps fan, so he is well-versed in the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry. Prior to this season, Hathaway played the entirety of his NHL career with the Calgary Flames, so he is intimately familiar with "The Battle of Alberta," the Flames' longtime, heated rivalry with the Edmonton Oilers, that produced a pretty fierce game just last night.
Hathaway was asked what it would be like if the Flames and Oilers didn't face one another until early February, and then played four times in a span of about 20 games, as the Caps and Penguins are about to do.
"The emotions would be high, especially in February," he says, with more than a hint of a knowing grin. "You start realizing how important every game is in the standings, and every team is trying to push for the playoffs. These games are worth the same two points, but there are just not that many [points] available right now."
Hathaway was then asked how long it generally took new teammates to warm to the fierceness of that Flames-Oilers rivalry.
"It's one of those things where, especially when you don't really see a team for a long time, you don't really talk about them," says Hathaway. "There is no reason to talk about them; you're focused on other games and other teams. But that lack of talk also carries a lot of weight, and how guys feel about guys on other teams, and just other teams in general."
Is he looking forward to getting the first-hand feel of this specific rivalry?
"Definitely," says Hathaway. "It's a special rivalry in this league, and I'm excited to be on the side that I am. I'm expecting a great environment and a hard-fought game. It's two teams at the top of the league, so it's going to be some good hockey."
The 500 Club - Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov will skate in his 500th career game today. Orlov made his debut here in D.C. on Nov. 21, 2011 against the Coyotes, who were still known as the Phoenix Coyotes at the time. Bruce Boudreau was behind the Washington bench at the time; he was replaced by Dale Hunter a week later.
Along with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Braden Holtby, Orlov is one of just five current Capitals whose careers stretch back to the Boudreau era here in D.C.
After a rugged first month of the season, Orlov has been excellent since. In 38 games since the beginning of November, the 28-year-old blueliner owns a 55.58 Corsi for percentage, tops among all Washington defensemen over that span. He was a minus-9 in his first 14 games of the season, but Orlov's plus-18 mark since then is tops on the team and his average of 21:58 in ice time is second on the team.
With an assist on Friday night in Ottawa, Orlov has reached the 20-assist plateau for the fifth straight season, and he is on pace for the best offensive season of his career.
"I think it should be like that," says Orlov. "I think I should play - when I get older - better. It was my plan, to build on my game and be better every year. It's a good number, and I hope I will play more than that. I hope to be healthy, play hard, play for my teammates and be a good teammate."
In The Nets - Ilya Samsonov gets the Sunday afternoon start for Washington, starting a second consecutive game for the second time in this, his rookie season in the league. Samsonov is coming off a 25-save effort on Friday night in Ottawa against the Senators, a 5-3 Washington win that raised his record to a stellar 16-2-1 on the season.
Samsonov will be facing the Pens for the first time in his NHL career, but he has met virtually every challenge thus far in his nascent career.
"He has been clearly a surprise for us," says Reirden, "[but] not a surprise in terms of what his talent level is. We've been waiting for him for a while, and we know his high-end ability as a prospect. He is going to be an excellent goaltender in this league for a long time, but certainly how he's done it, he continues to surprise us with success he has different situations.
"I didn't think he was completely on his game [Friday in Ottawa], yet he's able to have success and to be able to keep that last, final goal out to be able to make sure we win the hockey game. I think that is unbelievable for a rookie goaltender, to be able to do that. I'd say probably the save I like best is in the first period. He has one shot on net until we give up a breakaway [to Vladislav Namestnikov], and then he has to make that save. He's cold in the net, and he hasn't played in two weeks. Man, that's the save he makes. That's the type of stuff that really - to me - is the surprising part of his game, and it's a great compliment for young goaltender to be able to do that."
Samsonov has won 11 straight decisions. Among all rookie goalies in NHL history, only Boston's Ross Brooks strung together a longer streak. Brooks reeled off 14 straight victories for the 1973-74 Bruins.
In nine appearances on home ice this season (eight starts), Samsonov is 6-2-1 with a shutout, a 2.02 GAA and a .932 save pct.
We're not certain whether the Pens will be going with Tristan Jarry (17-8-1, three shutouts, 2.19 GAA, .928 save pct.) or Matt Murray (15-6-4, 2.84 GAA, .900 save pct.). Jarry has been better on the road (2.55, .919) than Murray (2.95, .883), but Murray has a longer résumé and prior experience against Washington.
Lifetime against the Caps, Murray is 7-4-0 with a 3.56 GAA and an .890 save pct. in 11 career appearances.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Penguins to look on Sunday afternoon in D.C. when they finally meet for the first of four times this season:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
19-McCann, 87-Crosby, 12-Simon
17-Rust, 71-Malkin, 72-Hornqvist
46-Aston-Reese, 53-Blueger, 13-Tanev
18-Galchenyuk, 26-Agozzino, 57-Angello
8-Dumoulin (lower body)
24-Kahun (upper body)
27-Bjugstad (core muscle)
59-Guentzel (upper body)