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Offensive stars abound for Pens-Caps showdown

by John McGourty

Sidney Crosby returned to the Penguins' line-up on March 4th and recorded one assist. Crosby highlights

Three of the NHL's most productive forwards will be on display Sunday when the Washington Capitals host the Pittsburgh Penguins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC's NHL Game of the Week.

The Penguins are battling the New Jersey Devils for first place in the Atlantic Division while the Capitals are in a pitched battle with the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division lead. Going into the weekend, the Penguins were tied with Montreal for the best record in the Eastern Conference, while the Capitals are in 10th place, four points out of a playoff spot.

For your viewing pleasure, enlisted the help of New York Rangers assistant coach Perry Pearn to break down the game. Pearn was one of Canada's top collegiate coaches for many years, capturing six Canadian College Athletic Association titles at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology between 1982-91. He was an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators for eight seasons, one as an assistant with the Winnipeg Jets and is in his fourth season with the Rangers.

Pearn coached Canada to the World Junior Championship in 1993. He also coached the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League and Ambri-Piotta of the Swiss Elite League.

Capitals up front -- The matchup of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against Alex Ovechkin makes this a tremendous game, one to really look forward to. The other guy to talk about in this game is Nicklas Backstrom. In the three games this season between these teams, Backstrom has seven assists, making him the highest-scoring player on either team in this game.

What's intriguing right now is that both teams are trying to find new chemistry because both made significant changes at the trade deadline. Based on what I've seen so far, particularly in Monday's game against Boston, is that Washington is still trying to figure out who will play with Backstrom and Ovechkin. They had Viktor Kozlov there for part of the game and then Sergei Fedorov. Whoever doesn't fit with them will play with Alexander Semin. On the power play, they had Semin with Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Ovechkin is the heart and soul of the offense. Over the course of the season, the chemistry between Ovechkin and Backstrom has grown. In that Boston game, we got a real sense of how dynamic that can be. They had both guys sending the other in on breakaways. The finishing ability that both have is impressive.

Backstrom is more of a passer than a finisher. He's only going to grow in that area. It takes the course of a year, a lot of times, for a young player to blossom into what he will be. Backstrom doesn't have that many goals but I expect he will score more over the last 15 games and will be a playoff factor, if they make it.

Even though a lot of people assumed Washington acquired Fedorov to play with Ovechkin, the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Kozlov line is working, so Bruce Boudreau may want to leave it together. Washington's challenge is what can it come up with for a second line. Alexander Semin can score, so they will be looking to see what kind of chemistry he can develop with Fedorov. On the right wing, Brooks Laich, a player I coached in Ottawa, has become more of a force offensively so that line could be Semin-Fedorov-Laich. I'm not sure Boudreau has yet made up his mind on these lines.

By trading for Matt Cooke, they solidified what they thought would be a bona fide checking line in David Steckel centering Cooke and Matt Bradley. Cooke is a disturber and can get the better players off their game. Steckel is a big guy who does a pretty good job in the faceoff circle, nearly 57 percent success, best among NHL rookies. He was 9-for-14 against Boston, mostly against Marc Savard, who is very good. I think Savard went 3-for-13. That game may not be a true read, but Washington was much better in faceoffs than I've seen them before. They won 54 percent against Boston and that's a good faceoff team. So, what happens? As I'm saying this, Steckel breaks his index finger and may be out three weeks.

Boudreau worked with a lot of these players when they were with the Hershey Bears, winning the Calder Cup one year and going to the final the next year.

That plays a big part in the team chemistry. He can take credit, with a lot of players, for their development and they know that. He's in a stronger position to challenge them to give their best, which is what you always have to do.

Penguins up front -- Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is trying to figure out who will play with Sidney Crosby until Marian Hossa comes back from injury. I don't think they want to tinker with the line of Evgeni Malkin centering Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora. I don't know if Hossa will be back for Sunday's game.

Malkin was really a dominant player for Pittsburgh in Crosby's absence. The interesting thing for them is how do they fit Crosby back into the lineup, given the injury to Marian Hossa? Crosby played with Pascal Dupuis and Maxime Talbot in his first game back from injury.

Malone is a perfect fit for Malkin because he drives through the defense, pushes it back and creates havoc. That gives Malkin space to work with. If Malkin can't find a shot, he has a great shooter in Sykora to work with. He'll find Sykora sitting in some hole, waiting for a pass.

Jordan Staal left Tuesday's games with what they said was a rib injury, but he played against Florida on Thursday. If he's not at the top of his game, that could be a problem. The Penguins are a bit depleted with the departures of Eric Christensen and Colby Armstrong, Hossa's injury and Adam Hall out for the year after surgery. They got Kris Beech back for depth and now he's hurt. They dressed Chris Minard the other night and played him two minutes. They look like they have a hole in their cast of forwards. Pittsburgh's third and fourth lines are not as strong as before the Hossa trade. If Staal is healthy, that takes care of the third line, but they don't have a center for Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu.

Capitals on defense -- The most important thing about Washington's defense is the rapid development of Mike Green into one of the most dynamic offensive defensemen in the League. His speed is something that every opponent takes note of. Everybody is saying the same thing: You have to know where he is all the time or his speed will hurt you. His ability to jump up into the play and his power-play skills are very significant. He's a lot better than he was at the start of the season, and his 17 goals lead all NHL defensemen.

Washington also has Tom Poti who I think is underrated in terms of what he does. He's a pretty solid offensive defenseman from the standpoint of moving the puck more than what he contributes to scoring. He's way better defensively than he sometimes gets credit. He has a great stick.

That gives Washington two nice defensive combinations in Poti with Jeff Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn with Green. Then they add a little bit of muscle with John Erskine and Milan Jurcina, another defenseman who has found his niche with the Capitals. He's playing with a lot more confidence than he did in Boston.

Washington is a lot better on the defensive end than they have been in a long, long time. Add in Brian Pothier who has been out with a concussion since early January. He's a guy who could really help them because he's such a good puck mover, the kind of defenseman you need to make sure Ovechkin is getting the puck.

Penguins on defense -- Pittsburgh is not as good defensively as Washington because they play a more wide-open style. Ryan Whitney, Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang play that kind of game.

That's why they wanted a guy like Hal Gill, to become more solid on the back end. They know they "go for it" a bit. Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi are also defensive defensemen and they wanted Gill for added strength.

Capitals in net -- The trade for Huet was a tremendous deal for Washington. Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire tells me Huet is one of the better goalies in the NHL. He has the best save percentage of any NHL goalie over the past three years.

I understand Montreal's situation, they are sitting on top of two very good, young goalies. They knew they would have trouble signing Huet or it would have been done before the deadline.

It's a great situation for Washington, having the combination of Olaf Kolzig and Huet. Kolzig has been one of the top goalies for a long time and enters the weekend with 299 career victories. I assume they'll give Huet every opportunity to grab the reins, but they also know Kolzig can do the job.

Penguins in net -- Marc-Andre Fleury recently returned after an injury and I expect he will play. They'll try to get their former first-round pick ready for the playoffs, but Ty Conklin played very well in his absence. He's the goalie eligible to play in this game with the best statistics this season. In fact, he's one of this year's really positive NHL stories. He's played in the NHL before and done good things, but nobody expected him to be the No. 1 goalie in Pittsburgh and to play as well as he did. We think he's unorthodox, but he gets the job done. It's a really good fit because he battles and finds ways to win. He makes the right save at the right time. That will take a lot of pressure off Fleury and the whole organization. I wouldn't be surprised to see him continuing to play well down the stretch.

Special teams breakdown -- Pittsburgh takes more penalties than Washington and that will be important. Washington has the sixth-best power play in the NHL. They've been one of the best over the past 30 games. They were 18th after 59 games and now they are sixth! They went from 39 of 204 to 52 of 275. With their acquisitions and the way they set up against Boston, it's obvious they are much better.

Both teams are in the lower half in penalty killing. When we played them both, Washington was much tougher, especially since Bruce Boudreau took over. They bring a lot of pressure but when you do that, it can hurt you. It hurt them in the matchup with Pittsburgh, which is five for 15 on power plays.

Washington is two for 11 against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has dominated that part of the series.

The last two meetings have been high scoring, as you would expect. Both games went to overtime, with Pittsburgh winning at home, 4-3, in overtime on Dec. 27 and Washington winning in a shootout at home, 6-5, on Jan. 21.


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