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Weekes: Penguins-Capitals could be playoff preview

by Kevin Weekes / NHL.com

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 will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.

We could be seeing a Stanley Cup Playoff preview Wednesday at Verizon Center.

It's always fun and unpredictable when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals get together, as they will for the first half of this week's Wednesday Night Rivalry doubleheader (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TVA, SN1). In the second game, the Los Angeles Kings host the Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, SN, SN1).

It'll be another great night for hockey. I decided to keep my focus on the early game:

PENGUINS

Pluses: I think Christian Ehrhoff has proven to be one of the best value signings for this season.

He's a really good player. I had a chance to broadcast a lot of games when he played in Vancouver, and I always saw him as a smooth skater who thought the game well. He can move the puck well. He can shoot the puck well. That looked like a great signing for Pittsburgh when Jim Rutherford made it, and it has proven to be just that. He fits in perfectly with the way the Penguins play. Quietly he has played very well.

The other big thing with Ehrhoff is that he's been healthy too. Look at the injuries the Penguins have had. Look no further than Olli Maatta being out. For the price that they're paying Ehrhoff ($4 million), based on the player he is and the fact that he's been able to play in 42 of the Penguins' 47 games, that's beyond a steal for Pittsburgh.

With Pittsburgh playing its skating game, which it has for the most part this season, that fits right into Ehrhoff's style. And remember, that's how Vancouver played as well. The Canucks had a good-skating, skilled team that made plays; so do the Penguins. That's why Vancouver was a good fit for Ehrhoff and that's why Pittsburgh is a good fit for him too. It was obviously different in Buffalo for him with a different style of play and different personnel.

Also a plus for the Penguins is their plus-23 goal differential. When you consider the guys they've had out of the lineup -- and to me, Evgeni Malkin is one of the top three players in the MVP race -- it suggests that they have played better defensively and the fact that Marc-Andre Fleury has played like the All-Star he is, and was this past weekend.

I know we have talked about the Stanley Cup Playoffs as they relates to Fleury, and yes he has to show it in the playoffs too, but when you think about everyone that has been out of the lineup, he has been one of the main constants; he's always there. You've gotta give Fleury credit there.

Another plus for the Penguins is that they went into Philadelphia last week and they didn't wilt. I don't like how they get sucked into that game and get thrown off-kilter, but I do like the fact that they weren't shrinking violets, that they didn't play on the perimeter, that they weren't scared.

It would have been easy to be like, 'Oh gosh, our knees are getting shaky, these guys are going to beat us down.' That would have been easy to do, but they didn't do that. That shows some toughness on their part.

Minuses: It's health, and it always seems to be health for the Penguins.

Will Sidney Crosby play against the Capitals? Malkin is already out. Good for them that they got Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang back for the game Tuesday, but Hornqvist in particular missed 11 in a row so he's just getting back into playing shape while playing games. Pascal Dupuis is obviously out. Maatta is a huge loss on defense.

We're talking about some world-class players who have been out of the Penguins' lineup. They've done a fair enough job of dealing with it, but my worry with the Penguins is that the injuries are catching up to them. These are amazing players to be without. You can only go so long without feeling the impact of them being out.

Dan Bylsma was with us during All-Star Weekend and he was just raving so much about Maatta. Players in that room rave about Maatta. He's a huge loss. Dupuis is a leader; he's a huge loss. Malkin is obviously a huge loss. Crosby might play, but it goes without saying that if he doesn't, well, that's a huge loss.

So that's my one minus with the Penguins: health.

CAPITALS

Pluses: They still have a really good offense, but they're much better defensively and Braden Holtby has been amazing.

All things start with Alex Ovechkin, and he's been playing amazing. He made major strides under Adam Oates and I think he's taken his strides this year to a different level under Barry Trotz.

Alex Ovechkin
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 27 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 43
SOG: 225 | +/-: 11
It all starts with Ovi for the Capitals, but let's not forget that Washington's defense corps is one of the deepest in the League right now. People don't talk about it enough how deep this defense is. That's a huge thing for them. Even though Holtby has improved this year under goalie coach Mitch Korn to take his game to the next level, I really think a lot of that goes to the "D" in front of him because a lot of the time before this season it was a bit of no-man's land on defense. The coverages weren't there.

Matt Niskanen has done a great job. Brooks Orpik has become a leader in the dressing room; he's holding guys accountable in that room. That's not an easy thing to do when you come in from the outside, especially when you have a superstar like Ovechkin already there. Credit to Orpik because he's been great at holding guys accountable. That's not easy to manage. He's done it in such a diplomatic fashion, so it works that he's in Washington. Put him on Capitol Hill.

Also helping Holtby is the way the Capitals' best forwards are defending. The Capitals always know when they are getting from guys like Jason Chimera, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr, but they weren't always getting the 200-foot game from their top six forwards. The fact that they're getting it from their top six now says a lot to me and it makes things easier on Holtby. That's been a huge improvement under Trotz and his staff.

Minuses: My only thing for them is will they continue to stay true to this identity? So it's not so much a minus as it is a question. If the answer is no, then it's a big minus. We'll find out in the long run.

The good thing is they've made these changes and they've gotten results from the changes. Sometimes you make adjustments and you don't see the fruits of it right away, but they've made these adjustments and they're seeing the benefits from having made them.

In saying all that, do they revert or do they continue to buy into what they're doing, what's working? My guess is the latter, but that's the key for me. They have to continue doing these things down the stretch. They have to.

The Capitals don't have a history that suggests that they can carry it all the way through, so now can they do it this year under Trotz?

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Tom Wilson to set the physical tone

I want to see how physical this game gets. I mentioned above the game between the Penguins and Flyers? Do the Penguins get sucked into the physical game again? Tom Wilson from the Capitals can help get them sucked in.

2. How will the Capitals take advantage of Pittsburgh's injuries?

We know that Malkin is out; who knows, Crosby might be as well. It'll be interesting to see how the Capitals try to take advantage of the Penguins missing one or both of their superstars.

3. Goalie matchup

Fleury didn't start Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets, so he gets the game against the Capitals. He hasn't played in a real game since Jan. 21, so how will he look? Will he be rusty?

Holtby got the start Tuesday and I assume he'll start Wednesday as well. How will the back-to-back affect him. The second half of the back-to-back has not been kind to Holtby this season. He's given up 10 goals and is 0-2-1.

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