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.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have the two longest winning streaks in the NHL; the Penguins have won five straight and the Capitals six. Along with the New York Rangers, they're tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division, so these two points will be critical.
The Penguins defeated the Capitals in six games in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on their way to the Cup last season, and then won 3-2 in a shootout when they raised their banner at PPG Paints Arena on opening night against Washington. However, the Capitals exacted some revenge with a 7-1 win on Nov. 16.
When two of the best players in our game in Sidney Crosby and the Penguins (26-8-5) visit Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals (26-9-5) at Verizon Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. E.T; NBCSN, NHL.TV), it will definitely be worth watching.
Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Marc-Andre Fleury has played great in the absence of Matt Murray. He's settled into a groove, winning each of his past five games (allowing eight goals), which could be a function of him finally playing more. Fleury, 32, has been so positive about the whole situation and hasn't been a distraction to the team, even when he was taking a backseat to the sizzling Murray before he got hurt.
Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been shredding the League this season; Crosby leads the League in goals (26) and has 44 points in 33 games. Malkin is right behind him with 43 points (16 goals) in 39 games. Each was named to the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game.
Pittsburgh gets contributions up and down its lineup, including from guys like Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen and Conor Sheary. The Penguins are also a fast team, and speed obviously helped them win the Cup.
Minuses: I'm not sure if the Penguins can turn up the physicality when needed. The Capitals could play more of a physical game, which could bother the Penguins and their speed.
Also, Pittsburgh is 18-2-2 at home this season but 8-6-3 on the road. The Penguins have a lot more road games to come and a win at Verizon Center, where Washington is 15-5-1, would go a long way in their confidence in playing away from home.
Video: TBL@PIT: Fehr slams home Cullen's feed on the rush
Pluses: The Capitals, as we've said, have won six straight games. They're playing their most consistent hockey of the season and are playing more complete hockey for them. Washington is doing a much a better job of playing on both sides of the puck than it did earlier in the season. The Capitals are also defending a lot better and there has been more balance in their game, which helped them last season. Right now, in this stretch, they are getting that; they've allowed nine goals in six games, including one or fewer in four of them.
Like Pittsburgh, Washington is getting production up and down the lineup. Justin Williams is starting to get his game back up. That is one of the Capitals' strengths, that they can get that production up and down the lineup.
Braden Holtby continues to be Braden Holtby. There hasn't been much drop off from his Vezina-Trophy winning season. He's won each of his past four decisions, had back-to-back shutouts last week and was named the NHL's Third Star of the week. Then there's Ovechkin, who may not have as many goals as in past seasons (19 through 40 games), but he had three points in a 4-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday and is one point away from 1,000 in his NHL career. And Nicklas Backstrom recently got his 500th NHL assist.
Lastly, they've been getting scoring up and down their lineup. We've seen some role players like Nate Schmidt and Daniel Winnik scoring, as well as the resurgence of Williams, who has nine goals in his past 16 games.
Minuses: One thing I'd like to see more is more goals from their defensemen. The Capitals have 14 from the back end, but this group, with John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov is capable of more.
The other thing is that there's still half of the regular season left to be played and the Capitals have to guard against getting bored. A lot of it is looking forward and ahead to the playoffs in their quest to finally get beyond the second round. Barry Trotz and the coaching staff have kind of just let them play and find their game, unlike last season, when they were the Presidents' Trophy winners and weren't tested much throughout the regular season.
Video: WSH@NJD: Ovechkin scores off of the backboard
Three things to watch
1. Pittsburgh's speed and skill against Washington's power and skill
2. Ovechkin-Crosby matchup
3. Will Ovechkin get his 1,000th point?