Two consecutive wins have helped the Washington Capitals
move past the team's longest stretch of losing since Bruce Boudreau
became coach more than three years ago.
Now the Capitals are about to take a big step up in weight class with their next opponent.
The Pittsburgh Penguins
come to Verizon Center on Thursday (7 p.m., NHLN-US) and bring with them one of the best records in the NHL.
Not only has Penguins-Capitals become one of the best rivalries in sports, but this particular meeting could prove to be a litmus test for where the Capitals are as they try to climb back among the League's elite this season.
"It is a huge game," said Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth
, who will be in net for the fourth straight game. "Obviously we want to keep going and keep winning. They might be the best team in the League right now, so we've got to bring our best."
Added Boudreau, "I think it is a great barometer because they are playing the best hockey arguably of any team in the NHL right now, so when you play against the best you find where you have to go and where you have to be."
"I think it is a great barometer because they are playing the best hockey arguably of any team in the NHL right now, so when you play against the best you find where you have to go and where you have to be." -- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
There are obvious storylines for the latest installment of the rivalry. It is nine days before these two clubs meet in the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The third episode of HBO series "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic" will be focused on this game.
But the most important one for the Capitals is if they can continue the positive momentum they've established in recent days. Even including its eight-game winless streak, Washington has played well in five of its past six games.
"I think it has been a good start the past two games," said David Steckel
. "We played more of a 60-minute game (Tuesday against New Jersey) than we have in a long time. (The media) will still say that we've lost nine of the last 11 if we lose, so it doesn't really matter. It is how you guys perceive it, but we're playing better right now so that's what is important to us."
There is an added obvious layer of hype surrounding this meeting because of the Winter Classic. Each of these teams will play at least two games before they meet again Jan. 1, but it's hard for this to not feel like a prelude to the League's marquee regular-season matchup.
How much spillover there is from Thursday to the Winter Classic remains to be seen, but it could provide at least a little psychological advantage -- especially since the Capitals won all four of the meetings between these teams last season.
"This is one of the games we mark on our calendars," defenseman Mike Green
said. "I think it is important to get a good step on these guys right away because we are playing them January 1st. It is always exciting playing these guys because they're a great team and it is a good challenge for us."
Added Karl Alzner
: "It is pretty big -- for our confidence, for this HBO thing -- there's a ton of different reasons. But maybe most of all because it is Pittsburgh and we love to play them -- well, love and hate to play them at the same time."
As the final moments of the Capitals' 5-1 victory against the Devils ticked away Tuesday, the fans at Verizon Center began to chant, "We Want Pittsburgh." A few players said they didn't hear it or couldn't understand what they were saying, but Alzner heard them loud and clear.
Even if there weren't the Winter Classic and HBO cameras looming over the game, it still would be a big showdown. Verizon Center fans don't chant, "We Want (insert team here)" for any of the other 28 clubs in the NHL.
"It is going to be great," Alzner said. "The fans were really into the game (Tuesday) night at the end and you could really hear that. It made me pretty pumped up for this game. It gets us fired up. It doesn't get us fired up when they boo on the power play, but that (chanting) gets us fired up."