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Pittsburgh vs. Washington Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (31-19-1-63) vs. Washington Capitals (31-12-6-68)
Where: Mellon Arena

When:
Thursday, January 21, 7:30 p.m.
Radio:
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV:
FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428, DirecTV 659 and Verizon Fios 576.

Season Series:
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals square off at Mellon Arena for the first time in the 2009-10 season and for the first time since their epic seven-game series in the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Pittsburgh overcame a 2-0 Washington lead in that series to win four of the next five games, including a 6-2 victory in Game 7 at the Verizon Center. Sidney Crosby had two goals in that contest and Marc-Andre Fleury robbed Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin early in the contest with a glove save on a breakaway attempt to turn the momentum in Pittsburgh’s favor. Washington took the regular-season series last year with a 3-1 record. Crosby (1G-6A) and the Capitals Alexander Semin (4G-3A) each finished with seven points to lead their respective teams.
 
PENGUINS PROJECTED LINES RELATED CONTENT
Forwards
Guerin-Crosby-Kennedy
Fedotenko-Malkin-Johnson
Cooke-Staal-Rupp
Jeffrey-Adams-Godard

Defense
Gonchar-Orpik
McKee-Goligoski
Eaton-Letang

Netminder
Johnson


Last Meeting: May 13, 2009
  PIT 6 - WAS 2 
Game Highlights
AP Recap
Crosby, Ovechkin Headline Marquee Matchup
Crosby, Ovechkin Renew Rivalry Thursday
Collection To Benefit Haiti Earthquake Victims Before Game

 
KEY TO VICTORY
Superstar Performances: When the Penguins and Capitals get together it is usually a battle of star-power between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins and Alex Oveckhin of the Capitals. Crosby has torched the Capitals in 15 career regular-season meetings with 26 points (8G-17A). Crosby and Malkin enter this contest red-hot with Crosby tying his career high with six points (2G-4A) against the Islanders on Tuesday and Malkin adding a hat trick to give him four goals in his past two games. Look for more of the same from the dynamic duo against a team they both love to face.

Covering the Points:
There might not be a team in the National Hockey League more dangerous up front than the Washington Capitals. They enter Thursday’s game with nine forwards already in double-digits in the goal-scoring column. That being said, the offensive-minded instincts possessed by Mike Green and Tom Poti present a significant challenge. Green, who leads all NHL blueliners with 50 points (12G-38A), has been red-hot with a current nine-game scoring streak where he has picked up 12 points (3G-9A). Poti has also been on fire with points in seven of his past 10 games (2G-7A).
 
LOWDOWN ON THE CAPITALS
Winning the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery has dramatically changed the fortunes of the Washington Capitals in much the same way winning the ’05 Lottery helped the Penguins. Adding Alex Ovechkin to the fold has enabled the Capitals to take home back-to-back Southeast Division crowns after missing the playoffs in four of five seasons prior. Washington is running away with its division for a third-consecutive season by opening a 17-point lead on the second place Atlanta Thrashers heading into Wednesday.

Along with the arrival of Ovechkin, Washington’s transformation from bottom feeder to offensive powerhouse began with the promotion of Bruce Boudreau to head coach on Nov. 22, 2007. Under his guidance the Capitals reeled off a 37-17-7 record down the stretch to edge out the Atlanta Thrashers for the division title. Boudreau was awarded the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year as a result. Last season Boudreau’s squad tied the franchise mark with 50 wins and their 108 points established a new team record.
 
NEW FACES
Pressed tight against the salary cap and already fielding a squad loaded with young talent, the Capitals made only two forays into free agency, signing center Brendan Morrison and power forward Mike Knuble.

Penguins fans certainly know what Knuble can bring to the table as a net-front presence. Often positioning himself right in goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s grill, Knuble scored four times in six regular-season games against the Penguins last season as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. The 37-year-old Knuble, who has six-straight 20-plus goal season on his resume, has continued to play at a high level in his new home with 13 goals and 25 points in 37 games.

Morrison’s career appeared at a crossroads after last season when he posted only 31 points (16G-15A) in 81 games split between the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars. He has proved that his struggles were simply a bump along the road as the six-time 50-point scorer has notched 28 points (10G-18A) and posted a plus-17 rating in 49 games with the Capitals.

Washington recently sent captain Chris Clark and defenseman Milan Jurcina to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for feisty Jason Chimera. In addition to supplying his usual grit, Chimera has chipped in six points (2G-4A) in 10 games with the Capitals.
 
FORWARDS
When Alex Ovechkin first broke into the NHL he was the beginning, the middle and the end of the Capitals’ offense. Now, while he remains one of the league’s top scorers, he has plenty of help. Washington already has an NHL-best 10 players with double-digit goal totals and former Penguin Matt Bradley (8) is right on the cusp of making that number 11. Washington’s 185 goals are 14 more than second-place San Jose even though the Capitals have two games in hand on the Sharks.

Ovechkin’s game seems to have reached even another stratosphere the past two seasons since he was paired with superb playmaker Nicklas Backstrom. Despite missing eight games earlier in the season due to injury, Ovechkin ranks third (tied) in the league in goals with 30, two behind the Penguins Sidney Crosby and four behind league-leader Patrick Marleau. Ovechkin’s 65 points are second only to Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin while his 1.59 points per game average is tops in the league. After his performance against the Penguins in last springs’ postseason, Penguins fans need not be reminded of Ovechkin’s ability to score anywhere over the blue line. Backstrom, 22, continues to play the role of Robin to Ovechkin’s Batman, but with 20 goals through his first 49 games, just two shy of the career-high 22 he posted last season, Backstrom is becoming a star in his own right. Known as a playmaker first, second and even third prior to this season, Backstrom has begun to use his shot more than in the past, evidenced by his 128 shots, which are third-most on the team. Last season Backstrom recorded 88 points (22G-66A) in 82 games. He has yet to miss a game in his career.

Backstrom’s ascendance to superstar status has pushed Alexander Semin’s name more to the backburner this year, but don’t let that lack of media buzz fool you. The sharpshooting Semin still possesses his lethal wrist shot and dizzying stickhandling skills. With 44 points (20G-24A) in 40 contests, Semin is one of four Capitals averaging better than a point per game. His 1.10 points per game average ranks 11th (tied) in the league. He is coming off a career-best 79 points (34G-45A) in 62 regular-season games, although Pittsburgh fans most notably remember the zero goals and minus-6 rating he posted in seven postseason games against the Penguins.

As wondrous as those three are offensively – and they are as good as any three forwards on one team – Washington’s offense is so explosive thanks to the continued development of Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleishmann and Eric Fehr into consistent secondary scorers. Each has always possessed the size to make an impact at the NHL level but they have now figured out how to translate that size and their skills into goals. Laich ranks fifth on the team with 34 points (13G-21A) in 49 games and Fleishmann has picked up 31 points (16G-15A) in 38 games as the two have combined with Semin on a potent second line. Fehr, who underwent surgeries to both shoulders in the offseason, has already matched last season’s goal total with 12 through his first 38 games.

As they showed in Game 6 last spring when David Steckel struck for an overtime goal off a faceoff to force the deciding game, the Penguins cannot take a shift off when Bruce Boudreau sends his fourth line of Steckel, Bradley and Boyd Gordon over the boards. In addition to being physical and tough defensively, the trio is more than capable of chipping in to an already loaded offense.
 
DEFENSEMEN
Mike Green might have had his troubles containing the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin during the Eastern Conference Semifinals but his play thus far this season makes you wonder how Canada can justify keeping him off their Olympic roster. The 24-year-old rearguard, who scored a career-high 31 times last season, has to be considered a Norris Trophy candidate this year as his 50 points (12G-38A) lead all defensemen. He is the only blueliner averaging better than a point per game. As remarkable as his offensive figures are, his defensive game has taken tremendous strides forward. Such a transformation is reflected when you look at his plus-20 rating, the seventh-best figure in the league.

Veteran Tom Poti appears to be having a bit of a bounce-back season in ’09-10 after struggling offensively his first two seasons in Washington. Never one to be confused with Rod Langway (the Capitals former Hall of Famer defensive defender), Poti picked up only 13 points (3G-10A) in 52 games last season. He has come back this season to record 16 points (2G-14A) through his first 41 games. Like Green, Poti is also have a stronger season in his own end, and he has a plus-11 rating to back that claim.

Brian Pothier, an underrated defender with the ability to contribute offensively from time to time, nearly saw his career derailed due to concussions, but he has been able to overcome his symptoms and he is back to providing the Capitals with his usual steady play. Pothier has 10 points (4G-6A) and a plus-12 rating in 32 games. Jeff Schultz’s name might not be well known around the league, but that probably won’t be the case too much longer with the way he has played in ’09-10. The 6-foot-6 former first-round selection in 2004 is tied with Ovechkin for the league lead with a plus-27 rating. The positionally-sound Schultz is also on his way to a career year offensively with 13 points (1G-12A) in 42 games. Recently the Capitals created salary-cap space to allow 6-foot-3 Kyle Alzner, the No. 4-overall selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, to rejoin the team. His defensive approach should further strengthen a Washington back line which has become a lot more difficult to play against this season. Alzner has five assists in 15 games this season.
 
GOALTENDING
Semyon Varlamov stepped up during the Stanley Cup playoffs to assume the No. 1 reigns from veteran Jose Theodore. The 21-year-old Russian proceeded to start the next 13 postseason games, finishing with a 7-6 record, 2.53 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. He appeared to be impenetrable during the first two games against Pittsburgh in Washington, but the Penguins were able to expose Varlamov over the course of the rest of the series with long-range shots to his glove hand.

While the Penguins appear to have found weakness to his game, the rest of the NHL is still trying. Before he left the lineup with a groin problem on Dec. 7, Varlamov was a top contender for the Calder Trophy as he posted a 12-1-2 record, a 2.21 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage in 16 games. Counting his regular-season record at the end of last season, Varlamov is 16-1-3 all-time. He is expected to return sometime within the next week from a rehab assignment with Hershey of the American League.

With Varlamov out, Theodore and another rookie, Michal Neuvirth have shared the load. Theodore, a former Hart Trophy winner with Montreal in 2002, appears to have regained his early-season form from last season as he has won four straight games, including a 44-save effort in a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday. Overall the right-handed catching Theodore is 14-7-4 on the season with a 2.85 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage. He was between the pipes last season for all four regular-season games against the Penguins, going 3-0-1. As recently as last week Neuvirth was splitting games with Theodore and had posted a 5-4 record, 3.27 goals-against average and a .892 save percentage in 11 appearances.
 
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: MIKE KNUBLE
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were dominant offensive talents even without a consistent running mate manning the third spot on their line. It should surprise nobody that both are performing better than ever thanks to the addition of Mike Knuble on their right side. With his 6-foot-3, 223-pound frame, Knuble’s big-bodied presence has opened up even more lanes for the other two thanks to defensemen having to account for him constantly parking himself outside the blue paint.

Washington hopes Knuble’s playoff experience will help take their youthful squad to the next level in their evolution to championship contender. He is widely considered a great guy in the locker room and that attribute was backed up by the fact that the Capitals named him an alternate captain in his first year with the team. Knuble picked up three points (2G-1A) in six games against the Penguins in last year’s postseason while with Philadelphia.
 
INJURY UPDATE
- Washington hopes to have goaltender Semyon Varlamov back in the lineup sometime in the next week. He has been out since December with a groin injury.
- Defenseman John Erskine is day-to-day with an upper body injury.
- Blueliner Brian Pothier has missed three straight games due to an unidentified injury.
 
"THEY SAID IT"
“That’s probably the best I’ve seen him. I’m watching him going, ‘this must’ve been how he was when he won the Vezina and the Hart in Montreal that year because without him, it could very well have been 6-0 at the end of the first period.’”

- Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau speaking to the Capitals official team website on the play of goaltender Jose Theodore in Washington’s 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday.

 
POINT OF INTEREST
25.1: Pittsburgh might be wise to stay out of the penalty box against Washington because the Capitals lead the NHL with a 25.1 success rate with the man-advantage.
  
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Author: Jason Seidling

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