Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing 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.
Five words: Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
They have been two of the best players in the game for the past decade and have helped the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively, to become perennial Stanley Cup contenders. The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy last season but lost to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round. Pittsburgh went on to win the Cup.
However, the rivalry goes beyond the captains. Each team has star power up front, on defense and in goal. You've got Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang on one side and Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby on the other.
So far this season, each team is off to a good start.
The Penguins (10-3-2) defeated the Capitals 3-2 in a shootout in their home opener on Oct. 13 when they raised their Stanley Cup banner, and you can bet Washington (9-4-2) will look for revenge at Verizon Center on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: One thing that's stuck out to me is that there's been no Stanley Cup hangover or letdown in their group this season. They've come out knowing that last season is over and they have to start over. Similarly to last season, they force teams to adjust to their attack, speed, pace and skill.
Video: MIN@PIT: Crosby deflects home PPG shortside
After missing the first six games of the season with a concussion, Crosby has continued where he left off last season. The Conn Smythe Trophy winner and World Cup of Hockey 2016 MVP has 10 goals in nine games. I talked to him the other day and he said the biggest thing for him is that he feels playing so deep into the playoffs and the short summer, followed by prepping and playing in the World Cup have helped him get off to the great start.
But it goes beyond Crosby. Evgeni Malkin leads Pittsburgh in scoring (eight goals, 15 points), and the Penguins aren't going to get out-goaltended on many nights with Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. It's the best tandem in the League.
Minuses: One thing that hurts the Penguins is that they're not overly physical. Malkin leads them with 22 penalty minutes, and the top three players in terms of hits are forwards (Chris Kunitz, 47; Patric Hornqvist, 39; Scott Wilson, 32). They've had three fighting majors all season, and sometimes you need that to spark the team. Pittsburgh is very deep on defense, but their guys aren't very physical.
Pluses: Washington isn't as dominant as it was last season, but the Capitals have been quietly good. They are flying under the radar. They've also shown they can win games in different ways, something we saw last season under Jack Adams award winner Barry Trotz.
The defense is producing offensively and defensively. Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt have combined for two goals and 27 assists. Washington also has plenty of offensive depth behind Ovechkin; he's not the only one being counted on to score.
Video: WSH@WPG: Alzner's wrist shot opens the scoring
And of course, there's Holtby. He's 7-3-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage and has looked every bit like the Vezina Trophy winner he was last season.
Minuses: There's no doubt the Capitals have tons of skill, but I think the Penguins play a faster game and the Capitals play a heavier game. It's one reason Washington lost to them in the playoffs last season and on opening night.
Also, for all their skill, it's hard to believe, but the Capitals are ranked 25th on the power play (11.9 percent). They were fifth last season. Also, Washington is scoring 2.53 goals per game, which is tied for 17th. They were second last season at 3.02.
Video: FLA@WSH: Holtby sprawls to stone Trocheck with a pad
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Pace of game: Can the Capitals keep up with the speed of the Penguins?
2. That special something: Which team will win the special-teams battle? Can Washington's power play solve Pittsburgh's penalty kill, and vice versa?
3. Let's get physical: Will the Penguins be able to match the physicality of the Capitals?