Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams playing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are no strangers to each other. The Metropolitan Division rivals have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past two seasons, with the Penguins dispatching the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Second Round each time on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.
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It's always fun to watch Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin go head-to-head, and each is off to a good start. Crosby has five points (one goal, four assists) in Pittsburgh's first three games; Ovechkin leads the League with seven goals and is the first player in 100 years to have a hat trick in each of his team's first two games of the season.
Pittsburgh (1-1-1) visits Washington (2-0-1) at Capital One Arena in this week's edition of Wednesday Night Rivalry. Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: The good news for Pittsburgh is that a lot of the younger guys are getting more playing time. Olli Maatta is seeing more ice on the back end, and forwards like Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary are stepping in after the departure of Matt Cullen or Nick Bonino. The Penguins don't have a defined third-line center yet and are trying to figure that out.
Having defenseman Kris Letang back is a huge plus. They managed to win the Cup last season without him in the playoffs, but having him playing the minutes he does and doing everything he does for them is really important.
Lastly, although they had a lot of turnover in the offseason, they didn't lose any of their top scorers. They still have Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, who are three of the best players in the League.
Video: NSH@PIT: Guentzel jams in the rebound for 2-0 lead
Minuses: This is a bit of a slow start by their standards, but they have played a lot of hockey in recent years. They were outscored 15-5 in a 5-4 overtime loss to visiting the St. Louis Blues last Wednesday and a 10-1 loss at the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday before defeating the Nashville Predators 4-0 two nights later. But let's see how things shake out for them when they are able to get their A game back.
Losing Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey on defense and Cullen and Bonino on offense did hurt them and will hurt them. All four played key roles during the regular season and in the playoffs.
They are lucky that they have Matt Murray who is a stud, in goal, though he's off to a slow start. Murray allowed five goals to the Blues and six to the Blackhawks before shutting out the Predators. Losing Marc-Andre Fleury will hurt them, although nobody questions Murray's stability or stamina. He just has to grow into his role as a No. 1.
Pluses: Washington is coming off a tough 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, but has been playing pretty well. The Capitals won their first two games, outscoring their opponents 11-5 on the strength of Ovechkin, who had hat tricks in back-to-back games and already has seven goals after scoring 33 in 2016-17, his lowest total in a full season since he had 32 in 2010-11. To me, he is scoring goals from all over the ice, and six of the seven have come at even strength. Linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov has assisted on each of his goals.
Forward T.J. Oshie has been great this season as well. He has such a versatility to his game, but I don't think that people really appreciate his skill set. We all know how well he does in the shootout, but he's more than that. He has some high-end skill.
After losing several key players during the offseason, expectations might not be as high publicly this season, so maybe there is less pressure on them to win. They are probably saying that they believe in each other, and that's all that matters. Maybe that will be better for them.
Video: WSH@TBL: Oshie rings it off the post for second PPG
Minuses: I still think Washington's defense is a little thin. The Capitals' strengths are lighting up the scoreboard and goaltender Braden Holtby, who is one of the best in the world. However, they have allowed nine goals in three games, which could be a product of breaking in some new defensemen (Aaron Ness, Taylor Chorney).
I'm interested to see what kind of production they are going to get from their lineup and back end from anyone not named John Carlson (who has two assists in three games). They had some key offseason losses on defense; Karl Alzner signed as a free agent with the Montreal Canadiens and Nate Schmidt was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft.
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Penguins shore up the early-season holes they've shown so far?
2. Will Ovechkin continue on his torrid goal-scoring pace?
3. What will the level of discipline be like? When these teams play, one or both often end up becoming undisciplined.