It’s certainly fitting that the Pens and Caps are the teams going head-to head in tonight’s Rivalry Night matchup on NBCSN.
“This is always an intense game,” captain Sidney Crosby Crosby said. “I think guys who have been a part of that for a long time need to make sure that’s understood. They’ve got a lot of guys still left who have been around for a while and two guys who played for us that experienced it. I know that they’ve always raised their game against us, so we have to make sure we do the same.”
That’s going to be imperative tonight against a red-hot Caps team that enters the meeting having won five straight games.
They recently returned from a three-game road swing through Western Canada where they outscored their opponents 16-3, and currently have the NHL’s top-ranked offense averaging over four games per game.
Along with their No. 2-ranked power play, the Caps’ first line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and offseason acquisition TJ Oshie has been the driving force behind their success. The 23-year-old Kuznetsov in particular has been deadly, as he had three goals, six assists and nine points during that road trip.
“That’s the big challenge, and they’re fun,” said defenseman Kris Letang, who will likely be matching up with those guys all night. “When you face guys like that, they’re really good players but they make you play better.”
As if that wasn’t enough motivation, the Pens certainly haven’t forgotten the way their season series against Washington went last year. The Caps dominated the Pens, posting a 3-1 record and outscoring Pittsburgh 13-5.
“Looking at last year, they took it to us for a couple games,” winger Chris Kunitz said.
Goaltender Braden Holtby was in net for all four of those games, posting two shutouts, a 1.27 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage. Kunitz plans to be one of the guys trying to wreak havoc in his crease all night to ensure he doesn’t have that same amount of success against the Pens this year.
“Goalies are going to stop that first, second one if they get great rebound control,” Kunitz said. “So you’ve got to take away their eyes, want to make sure you have those second, third chances and shoot when they’re not expecting it. It’s something everyone’s trying to do in the league but we have to get better at it. They have a good D corps to keep guys away and they’ll block shots, so you have to be smart with your choices.”
Finally, it’s the first divisional matchup of the season for the Pens – and they know how important these games are.
“We talked about how important these division games are,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “We didn’t like our record early in the year against our division teams last year. Got to get off on a better start. It’ll be a battle. It’ll be one of those games.”
Taking all of that into consideration, the Pens are certainly going to be an incredibly motivated team tonight.
“You remember what they did to you last year, but you have to look at their personnel and players they have now and what’s going to dictate their play,” Kunitz said. “Obviously they’re scoring lots of goals, they have a really hot top line, are getting some healthy guys back. So it’s going be a hard-fought game. We have to play one of our best games of the year.”
BENNETT IS BACK Johnston confirmed that winger Beau Bennett will return to the lineup tonight against Washington after missing the last five games due to injury.
Johnston wants to see Bennett, who will be moved up and down the lineup, pick up right where he left off in the last game he played – where he scored his first of the year in a 3-2 loss to Montreal on Oct. 18.
“I like the way he finished,” Johnston said. “The last game he had was a real good game for him. He had a very good training camp for us, carried the puck well. I think when he manages the puck, carries it well, plays with that competitive edge that we need from him, then he’s on his game.”
MORNING SKATE NOTES Though the Pens had full attendance at their morning skate in Verizon Center, the team did not do line rushes. Instead, they just worked on flow drills. However, these are the lines and power-play units they utilized during the last couple days of practice following their last game…
On the first unit, Kessel was back at his half wall. Letang was still at the midpoint with Hornqvist providing the net-front. Malkin and Crosby took turns working the half wall while the other worked down low – below the goal line and at the net.
On the second unit, Bennett and Cole rotated in for Sprong and Maatta. The three constants were Kunitz, Perron and Bonino.
LETANG TO PLAY 500TH GAME Tonight will mark Letang’s 500th NHL game. That’s always a special number no matter what, but it’s particularly significant for the 28-year-old defenseman considering all of the injuries and health scares he’s dealt with over the years.
“It’s fun to get there,” Letang said of the milestone. “Obviously the main goal for a lot of hockey players is to get 1,000, but I have a lot of hockey left in me and it’s fun to reach that goal. I wish I could have reached it faster, but due to some injuries and stuff, (I couldn’t). But it’s fun to be at that number tonight.”