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Pittsburgh vs. Washington Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins (35-22-1-71) vs. Washington Capitals (40-12-6-86)
Where: Verizon Center

Sunday, February 7, 12 p.m.
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9

Season Series: Pittsburgh and Washington square off for the second time this season. Washington won the first contest, 6-3, in Pittsburgh back on Jan. 21. Sidney Crosby tallied the opening goal of the game for the Penguins and Evgeni Malkin picked up three assists. Alex Ovechkin had two goals and an assist for Washington.
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, which has won a franchise record 13 consecutive games, is running away with its division for a third-consecutive season by opening a 27-point lead on the second place Tampa Bay Lightning heading into Saturday’s late games.

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.
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 20 goals and 37 points in 46 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 31 points (11G-20A) and posted a plus-17 rating in 58 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 10 points (4G-6A) in 19 games with the Capitals.
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 nine players with double-digit goal totals and former Penguin Matt Bradley (8) is right on the cusp of making that number 10. Washington’s 225 goals are 37 more than second-place San Jose.

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 leads the league in goals (39) and points (82). Ovechkin’s goal from the center point on Jan. 21 certainly reminded Penguins fans of his ability to score anywhere over the blue line. Backstrom, 22, continues to play the role of Robin to Ovechkin’s Batman. With a career-high 25 goals already, 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 159 shots, which are third-most on the team. Last season Backstrom recorded 88 points (22G-66A) in 82 games.

Alexander Semin might not be receiving as much notoriety with Backstrom’s emergence, 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 58 points (26G-32A) in 49 contests, Semin is one of four Capitals averaging a point per game. His 1.18 points per game average ranks 9th 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 sixth on the team with 40 points (17G-23A) in 58 games and Fleishmann has picked up 41 points (17G-24A) in 47 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 surpassed last season’s goal total with 14 through his first 47 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.
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 53 points (13G-40A) lead all defensemen. He is the only blueliner averaging 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-23 rating, the fourth-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 20 points (3G-17A) through his first 50 games. Like Green, Poti is also have a stronger season in his own end, and he has a plus-22 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 11 points (4G-7A) and a plus-14 rating in 37 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 second to Alex Ovechkin with a plus-34 rating. The positionally-sound Schultz is also on his way to a career year offensively with 15 points (2G-13A) in 51 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 19 games this season.
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. Varlamov continues to be day-to-day with groin and knee injuries.

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 nine-straight victories, including a 35-save effort against the Penguins on Jan. 21. Overall the right-handed catching Theodore is 19-7-4 on the season with a 2.84 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. He was between the pipes last season for all four regular-season games against the Penguins, going 3-0-1. Neuvirth has posted a 9-4 record, 2.69 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage in 11 appearances.
If Alex Ovechkin is the yin for the Capitals then Nicklas Backstrom is the yang. Washington’s third-year pivot, who has established himself as one of the top playmakers in the NHL, ranks fourth (tied) in the league with 71 points (25G-46A) in 58 games.

In addition to being productive, Backstrom has proven to be plenty durable, playing in 222 straight contests since making his NHL debut. He enters this contest riding a seven-game scoring streak in which he has registered 15 points (4G-11A). Backstrom scored once against the Penguins on Jan. 21.
"It's difficult to stay at a pace when every team you're playing is coming at you in waves because they're the ones who want to end it. The reason winning streaks are tough is because you have to be at the top of your game all the time."

- Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau speaking to the Capitals official team website about Washington’s current 13-game winning streak.

13: Washington’s 13-game winning streak is the longest in the NHL since the New Jersey Devils ripped off 13 straight during the 2001 season.
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Author: Jason Seidling

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