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Pens, Caps prepare for Round 3

by Dan Rosen
PENGUINS (42-25-6) at CAPITALS (48-14-10)

Last 10 -- Pittsburgh 5-3-2; Washington 7-2-1.

Season series -- The Capitals won the first two games of the series. They won at Pittsburgh, 6-3, on Jan. 21 and then a 5-4 overtime thriller at Verizon Center on Feb. 7. They close the season series at Pittsburgh on April 6.

Big story -- It's always the rivalry between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby as well as the rivalry between the teams, the fans, the cities, etc. However, the huge story in this one is the Penguins need to break out of their mini-slump. New Jersey pulled into a tie with Pittsburgh for first in the Atlantic Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference with its win Tuesday night. The Devils also have a game in hand.

Team Scope:

Penguins -- Evgeni Malkin (sore foot) should again be a gametime or at least a gameday decision for coach Dan Bylsma. Malkin has missed three of the last four games since Kris Letang's wayward slap shot hit him in Tampa Bay 10 days ago. The Penguins need to be at full strength down the stretch if they are going to win the division and secure the second seed. They have struggled of late with a 2-3-2 mark over their last seven games after coming out of the Olympic break with four straight wins. Pittsburgh has scored only 14 goals during its recent seven-game stretch. Crosby, who is tied with Ovechkin for the League lead in goals with 45, hasn't scored in five straight games and has just three since scoring the OT winner in the gold medal game at the Olympics. The good news is that Marc-Andre Fleury has been playing well of late.

"They're an experienced team. They won the Stanley Cup last year," Ovechkin said of the Penguins. "I think any momentum change in the game can change their mentality so they can just be who they are."

Capitals -- Opposite of the Penguins, the Capitals don't have much to play for unless you count the President's Trophy, but it will take a fairly monumental collapse for them to even lose that. They've already wrapped up the Southeast Division title and they have a 16-point lead in the Eastern Conference and a nine-point lead in the race for the President's Trophy, which brings home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Jose Theodore has been lights out lately, so there is little concern in net right now either. What the Caps want to do starting Wednesday is build their playoff mentality, and by that we mean playing as they would if it was a playoff game. Of course they don't have to lay it all on the line, but the quicker they can get to thinking in the playoff frame of mind the better they'll be when the postseason arrives. If they win the President's Trophy along the way, that's a bonus.

"They're building block games for us going into the playoffs," Mike Green told "We're not going to change anything here. We're not going to sit back. We're going to play the same way because it's worked all season and why wouldn't we?"

Who's hot -- Theodore is 16-0-2 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .927 save percentage since Jan. 13. He has wins in six straight starts and a GAA of 1.80 over the stretch.

Injury report -- Malkin (foot) is questionable for the Penguins while the Caps will be without Milan Jurcina (hernia), Boyd Gordon (back) and Scott Walker (knee). Brooks Laich is questionable after getting struck in the face by a puck in practice Tuesday.

Stat pack -- Pittsburgh has killed off 33 of the last 35 power plays its faced (94.3 percent) and 88 of its last 100 (88 percent). With a win, the Caps put themselves in position to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference this week. They remain the only team in the NHL to have clinched a playoff berth. The Caps could also tie a franchise record for points in a season with a win Wednesday.

Puck drop -- "I'm going mental," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked if he's watching the race for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. "We have to play somebody and nobody is going to give us a bye into the finals. All good teams make the playoffs. There is no way you can get a bad team in the playoffs so the work is cut out for us no matter who we play."
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