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This time, Caps, Pens battling just to get in playoffs

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner couldn't quite believe what he was hearing.

Yes, it is true that with a regulation win over Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the Capitals will jump into the top eight in the Eastern Conference and the Penguins will fall out. As it stands now, the Penguins, losers of five straight, are clinging to eighth place while the Capitals have dropped to 10th after losing both of their recent games in California by identical 5-2 scores.

It wasn't long ago that these two bitter rivals were fighting for Eastern Conference supremacy and battling in an epic playoff series.

"Yes, it does (surprise me), just because the last few years we've both been toward the top of the Eastern Conference and the League," Alzner said. "Having to be in this position, that every game you lose is so huge right now, just thinking about that is an eye-opener for sure. We need to have these points."

The Penguins need them, too. They're coming off a 5-1 home loss to Ottawa. That one came after three straight 3-1 losses to the Devils, Rangers and then Devils again. The Flyers also won at Pittsburgh, 4-2, on Dec. 29, the night that the Penguins five-game losing streak began.

They're playing without Sidney Crosby (concussion symptoms), Kris Letang (concussion symptoms) and Jordan Staal (knee). James Neal played Tuesday despite his fractured foot.

Then again, the Capitals will be without Nicklas Backstrom (undisclosed, possible concussion symptoms) and Mike Green (groin) on Wednesday.

Despite the injuries and their respective average-to-below-average positions in the Eastern Conference standings, the Capitals still view any game against the Penguins as being different than just another game.

"Of course, it's a big rivalry," Alex Ovechkin said. "They lost a couple of good players, leaders for their team. But we lost our leaders, too. So it's going to be a pretty good battle. It's always an interesting game, Capitals against Pittsburgh."

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The respect factor is certainly there. For instance, Capitals veteran Mike Knuble gave the Penguins credit for still being in the race at this point.

"Injuries have taken a toll on them, but they've been a resilient group," he said. "They've been hanging in there and you have to commend their players. It could be worse. They could be feeling sorry for themselves when nobody in the League is feeling sorry for them."

Knuble was then asked if it's the same situation in Washington.

"It is," he said. "Nobody really cares. Teams coming in, they play against that lineup on the ice, it doesn't matter who is in and who is out. At the same time, we feel we have a lot of capable players in here and if we play our system well and play well defensively then we'll be OK. Hard work and smart play, you can bring that every night. That's just a mindset. I know it sounds easy, and some nights it's there and some nights it's not. We have to make that a No. 1 priority every night."

He said they haven't done that enough this season, and "it's a pretty good reflection on how we've been playing.

"Tonight is a great challenge and it's a good week for us," Knuble added. "We have a bunch of games, playing every other day, so you should be able to get some momentum going to climb back in the race. You do that by winning games. You can't hope and keep your fingers crossed and hope someone else is losing. The only way to gain ground is winning a bunch in a row."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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