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Weekes' pluses, minuses for Penguins, Capitals

by Kevin Weekes

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 become rivals over the past decade thanks in part to Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Two of the best players in the game have made this a must-watch every time the teams play.

Pittsburgh (4-4-0) comes in having won four of its past five games; the Capitals (6-1-0) have won their past five. Washington has won three of the past four in the series; before that, Pittsburgh won eight in a row.

The Penguins visit the Capitals at Verizon Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN). Here's my breakdown of the game:


Pluses: An underrated part of the Penguins' game is the role of Matt Cullen and the guys on the bottom six. Those guys are going to play a big role, especially on the penalty kill. Pascal Dupuis coming back is a plus, Chris Kunitz and David Perron trying to fit in on the bottom six will be an adjustment, but those guys will be important. The Penguins have to try to win games 2-1 and 1-0; they can't try to only win offensive shootouts.

After a slow start, Marc-Andre Fleury has four wins in five games and has allowed two or fewer goals in four of his past five games. He's always been an important part of the Penguins' success.

Minuses: The Penguins haven't hit their stride yet. I knew that when they got Phil Kessel, they weren't just going to play him with Crosby. The thought was, of course, he would start with Crosby but then they would move him around the lineup. They are looking for some different combinations to see what works to see who he fits better with.

That being said, Kessel can and will score on his own. He isn't dependent on Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, he has been a big goal-scorer before. Kessel also isn't a puck hog and looks for teammates often before shooting.

In eight games, Crosby has one goal and three points, which all came in the same game six games into the season. I don't expect that to last, but it's definitely not a good thing that the captain has yet to get going offensively.


Pluses: Evgeny Kuznetsov was named the NHL's First Star of the week after having nine points in three games, including a hat trick and five points in a 7-4 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 23. He has played so well that Nicklas Backstrom, who missed the first three games with a hip injury, hasn't had to be rushed back into the lineup and on to the top line with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie. It's allowed coach Barry Trotz flexibility to ease Backstrom into the lineup and not have to play big minutes right away.

Backstrom is playing exceptionally well. He scored a goal in his first game back and had game-winning goals in each of his first two games. Backstrom has seven points in four games. It's given the Capitals more balance offensively to have him on the second line right now.

Oshie has been a really good fit with Washington in terms of meshing with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. His game looks more complete than it was with the St. Louis Blues. They wanted to make some changes with some of their top guys and decided to part with Oshie, but this has worked out for him. He's created space and also made plays, and is very unselfish.

The Capitals' best position right now based on their blend between their offensive game and how they defend is their defense. Adding Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik last season has had an immeasurable impact on this group. Orpik is well-respected in the locker room, and Niskanen is a steady presence.

And we can't forget The Great 8. Ovechkin is Ovechkin. He is committed to being Ovechkin every night. When you're part of the 400 goal club, most people wouldn't want to change their game. You've got to give him a lot of credit to want to change his game and make adjustments to get better.

Minuses: The only real minus right now -- and it's hard to even classify this as a minus -- is that goalie Braden Holtby won't surprise anyone this season.

Holtby, who had a record-setting season last year (41-20-10, 2.22 goals-against average, .923 save percentage, nine shutouts), is off to a similar start this season (5-1-0, 2.03 GAA, .917 save percentage). Goalie coach Mitch Korn told me Holtby is a student of the game and is bright and professional. But he won't surprise anyone with how good he will be this year.


1. Power plays. The Capitals are converting on 31.8 percent of their power-plays (7-for-22); the Penguins are at 7.1 percent (2-for-28).

2. Justin Williams and TJ Oshie. How will each mesh with their new team?

3. Phil Kessel. Where does he play most of the game?

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