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Five things to watch when Capitals host Penguins

by Brian Compton /

Six points separate the top four spots in the Metropolitan Division. Two of them are occupied by teams involved in this week's edition of Wednesday Night Rivalry.

The Washington Capitals, who have won seven of their past 10 games, will host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TVA, SN1). The Penguins (34-17-9) currently reside in third place in the Metropolitan, one point ahead of Washington (33-18-10).

Pittsburgh has managed to stay in the division race despite a 7-11-4 record against division opponents; Washington is 13-5-4.

"They're a really good team," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "They are solid defensively. You have to find a way to overcome that and score goals and get big wins. We haven't done a good enough job in our division."

The Capitals had won four in a row before a 3-2 loss at the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Washington hasn't gone consecutive games without a point in over a month.

"I think there's a little bit of a rivalry starting to develop again between the Penguins and the Caps," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "Both teams will be amped up. It should be a good game."

Here are five things to watch on Wednesday:

1. Capitals going for sweep

Washington is 3-0-0 against Pittsburgh (the Capitals have outscored the Penguins 10-1) and has a chance to sweep the season series for the first time since the 2010-11 season. In the most-recent showdown, Joel Ward broke a tie with 4:13 remaining in a 3-1 victory on Feb. 17.

"Washington has had an edge over us, and you don't want them to have a psychological edge heading into the playoffs," Penguins coach Mike Johnston told reporters Tuesday. "Certainly [Wednesday] night's game is a big game."

2. Will Ovechkin/Letang feud resume?

The Penguins received a scare the previous time they played the Capitals when Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang was slashed by Alex Ovechkin while pursuing a loose puck in the third period. Letang crashed into the boards and briefly left the game.

Emotions ran high afterwards, so one has to wonder if that will boil over in front of a national audience Wednesday.

"Maybe the intensity (will carry over), but I don't think there will be any targeting," Crosby said, according to the Penguins website. "We're going to play a hard game. That's the way you need to play, especially against them. We need to make sure we're physical. Last game, regardless of the slash, I thought we did a good job of being physical."

3. Capitals still looking for right fit on top line

Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been a constant on the Capitals' top line. Right wing, however, has been somewhat of a revolving door. Washington coach Barry Trotz has started games with eight different forwards alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom, still in search of the right fit. Andre Burakovsky, a first-round pick in 2013, could get the call Wednesday.

It hasn't slowed production from Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 38 goals, or Backstrom, who's tied for the League lead in scoring with 64 points, but one would think Trotz would like to find a mainstay at right wing before the Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway.

"I don't know if it's ideal or not, but all I know is [Backstrom] and [Ovechkin] are almost 1-2 in League scoring," Trotz said. "They've had a multitude of different people there and I think they're capable of playing with a lot of people and it's worked out. You take their point totals 5-on-5, it's up there with the best in the League.

"Is it ideal? I don't know if it is or not. Probably not, but I think at the same time it does make you a little more alert of what you're playing with and who. Sometimes you go stale the other way, too."

Christian Ehrhoff
Defense - PIT
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 13
SOG: 94 | +/-: 9
4. Ehrhoff close to returning

Penguins defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who hasn't played since Jan. 28 because of a concussion, practiced Tuesday and could be ready to return against the Capitals.

Pittsburgh brass is waiting to see how Ehrhoff responded after participating in full-contact drills before making a decision.

"He went to the next stage so that's positive," Johnston said of Ehrhoff, who has 13 points in 43 games. "We'll see his reaction to the contact he had (Tuesday). He could possibly be in (Wednesday), but we'd like to see him in one more practice. If he's feeling good (Tuesday) afternoon and heading into (Wednesday) morning, then we'll have to make him a game-time [decision]."

5. New lines for Penguins

The results have been positive for Pittsburgh since Johnston reorganized his top-six forwards. Crosby, who normally plays with Chris Kunitz, was placed with David Perron and Patric Hornqvist. Evgeni Malkin centered Kunitz on the left and Blake Comeau on the right.

Since the moves were made, the Penguins have defeated the St. Louis Blues and Florida Panthers by a combined 9-3 score.

"When (Kunitz) moved it gave us more balance between the top two lines," Johnston said. "It gives us an opportunity to mix and match and stimulate the lines by making a change every once in a while. It's all in preparation so that guys are ready to play with different people if they have to."


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