Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens' morning skate prior to facing the Washington Capitals…
The Pens have been utilizing optional morning skates all season long. The only two exceptions were when the team did not practice the day before the game. So it's become standard practice to hold optional morning skates.
And Crosby has taken the option to stay off of the ice every single time, until today. Crosby took part in his first optional skate of the season at Capital One Arena. I'm not sure if that means anything of significance for the game tonight, but I believe it is noteworthy.
In a bit of a surprising move, the Pens will start goaltender Casey DeSmith in goal tonight against the Capitals.
"He's played extremely well for us to this point," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's given us a chance to win on most nights. Matt (Murray) just played four games in a row. There's been some inconsistency in our overall team game, and that was part of the decision making."
The Pens were riding high following a 4-game winning streak through Canada, including the team's first western Canadian sweep since 2007. Since then, however, Pittsburgh has been immersed in a 4-game winless streak at 0-3-1, while being outscored by a 19-6 margin.
Still, the Pens know that these struggles are part of the ups-and-downs of a long season.
"I think it's definitely a process, you have to understand that," captain Sidney Crosby said. "You have to identify what you need to improve and make sure that you're better in those areas and you're finding ways to win games. These points still count. I think that's the balance we're trying to find."
The Pens are a veteran group that has dealt with a lot of adversity throughout the past few seasons. While the losses are frustrating, the team knows how to handle the emotional roller coaster.
"I think we're good. The sun came out today," defenseman Kris Letang said. "We're all at the rink. It happens around the league. Sometimes it's tough to get out of a slump. Come to the rink and put a smile on your face and you work hard. That's it."
FACING THE CHAMPS
The Pens opened the season by hosting the defending Stanley Cup-champion Washington Capitals. The result was a thrilling 7-6 overtime victory for the Pens, punctuated by Letang's winner.
The Pens would love to breakout out of their current slump with a victory against an archrival on the road.
"It's good for making sure that we're motivated and ready to go, and understand the urgency in our game," Crosby said.
"Sometimes it brings the best out of you," Letang said. "You're going to a tough building, a tough team to play against. It's a good test, we'll see what we're made of."
The Pens have been shaking up their lineup a lot during the current 4-game skid. They've changed line combinations, defense pairs, player scratches and now they're making more player changes.
Pittsburgh recalled forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson from the American Hockey League, while forward Derek Grant was re-assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
"Every day was a day of growth," Aston-Reese said. "The guys down there were so hungry come practice and game time. I found a little edginess in my game.
"Physicality goes so far beyond hits. It's being heavy on pucks, and puck battles along the wall, getting the puck in deep. Little details of the game like that. I think that was lost and I re-found part of my game again."
Aston-Reese is coming off of his first career hat trick and 4-point contest in Bridgeport on Sunday. While Wilson, in the same game, posted 2 goals and 3 points.
"My confidence is high right now. I'm playing pretty well right now," Wilson said. "Hopefully I can carry that over here tonight."
Both players will likely be in the lineup tonight, particularly Aston-Reese, whom is highly regarded among the coaching staff.
"He brings a dimension to our team with his tenacity, his physical play, he's strong on the boards and good in front of the net," Sullivan said. "He's a guy we can utilize in a lot of situations.
"Our intent was to get him some games, give him an opportunity to capture his game against, build some confidence. He's certainly done that in Wilkes-Barre."
Video: Mike Sullivan talks before tonight's game in DC