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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Capitals

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (7-3-0) vs. CAPITALS (2-7-1)
WHEN: February 7, 2013 - 7:00 p.m.  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

The Capitals have gotten off to an uncharacteristically weak start in this shortened season, losing eight of their first 10 to put them at the bottom of the league standings. And with 20 percent of the season gone, they’re running out of time to figure out and rectify their situation if they want to make the playoffs.

It looks like Michal Neuvirth will start on Thursday in Pittsburgh
(Getty Images)
Last season the Capitals had to adjust to new head coach Dale Hunter, who took over for Bruce Boudreau. This season has brought another coaching change, as former Capitals great and Hall of Famer Adam Oates is behind the bench for Washington. With him comes an entirely new system and mentality, and the team didn’t have the luxury of a long training camp and preseason to get used to Oates and his style. But the players refuse to blame that as the problem.

As a team, one of their issues is attention to detail. They’re making mental mistakes, breakdowns, miscommunications and missing assignments – especially in their own end – that are resulting in timely goals for their opponents. They’re also having trouble clearing traffic from the slot and front of the net and that’s resulted in a number of goals against due to tips and screens, which hasn’t helped their goalies’ confidence.

In addition, their special teams have been ineffective and haven’t gotten them needed momentum in games. It’s especially troubling that their power play has been struggling, as it ranked among the league’s best just a few seasons ago and has the same key players – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green – that contributed to its past success.

One positive for the Capitals has been the line of Wojtek Wolski, Mike Ribeiro and Ovechkin. They were a factor against the Penguins a few days ago, and so far they are the only combination to stay intact through some rearranging by Oates over the last few days. They’ve been strong in the offensive zone, being physical on the boards and around the net and creating time and space.

But overall, their best players are not being just that. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played in Europe during the work stoppage, so part of the problem may be adjusting back to the smaller rinks and different style of play. Ovechkin, who’s switched to right wing after spending most of his career on the left, has recently been playing especially well away from the puck. But both of these players must find a way to put the puck in the back of the net and help their team win games.   

Their young goaltending tandem hasn’t been strong, with last year’s playoff hero Braden Holtby looking shaky and Michal Neuvirth not faring much better. But after Holtby started the last meeting between the clubs, Oates said following Wednesday’s practice that this time Neuvirth is going to be his guy against Pittsburgh, telling reporters “he’s played pretty good and we need a goalie to have a good game, and I think it’s going to be Michal.” Neuvirth’s been successful against the Penguins in his three games against them, going 2-0-1 with a 1.32 goal-against average and a .954 save percentage.

(Getty Images)

The Capitals need more from all of their players, but especially from their stars. And although Nicklas Backstrom is on a five-game point streak, totaling a goal and five assists over that stretch, so far he just doesn’t look like the star center he’s proven he can be and hasn’t been making a significant impact in games. Could Thursday be the game he turns it around? Backstrom practiced with Marcus Johanssen and Troy Brouwer during practice on Wednesday, with each of them bringing something different to the line. Coach Adam Oates is hoping they give the Penguins trouble five-on-five. But where he most wants to see Backstrom make an impact is on the power play, as he’s the quarterback.

Orpik is part of the Penguins’ shutdown pairing with Paul Martin and is one of the team’s top penalty killers. He produced a monstrous effort on Tuesday against the Islanders, seeing 8:36 shorthanded minutes while helping the Penguins kill off seven penalties and producing five blocked shots. In Pittsburgh’s previous game, a win over Washington, he saw nearly 30 minutes of ice time. With this desperate Caps squad looking for their third win, the Penguins will need Orpik to be his usual stalwart self and play physical against the Caps forwards.

  • On Wednesday the Penguins acquired a 2014 fifth-round draft pick from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Pittsburgh also recalled defenseman Dylan Reese from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League – analysis on both moves here.
  • Pittsburgh enters Thursday's game riding a season-high four-game winning streak – the longest active winning streak in the NHL. 
  • The Penguins are looking to win back-to-back home games against the Capitals for the first time since posting a seven-game home winning streak between March 16, 2004 and Dec. 27, 2007.
  • The Capitals have gone 9-0-1 in Pittsburgh in their last 10 road games in the series. Washington has not lost a game in Pittsburgh in regulation since Feb. 18, 2007. Since 2008, the Capitals have gone 13-3-3 with two shootout losses against Pittsburgh.
  • The nine goals scored by the Penguins and Capitals on Sunday afternoon was the most combined goals between the teams since a 6- 3 Washington win on April 6, 2010 at Mellon Arena. In the eight games between that game and Sunday’s contest, the Penguins and Capitals had combined for 29 goals – an average of just 3.6 goals per game.
  • Penguins captain Sidney Crosby enters tonight’s game with a season-high five-game point streak – the team’s longest streak of the season. Crosby’s five-game assist streak ties him with the Capitals Nicklas Backstrom for the longest active streak in the NHL. With an assist Thursday, Crosby will equal the NHL’s longest assist streak of the season (previously done by San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg).
  • F Chris Kunitz made some history on Sunday against Washington when he became the first Penguins player to score four goals in a single game since Jaromir Jagr did so on Oct. 14, 2000 against the NY Rangers at Mellon Arena. Kunitz, whose hat trick was the third of his career and second with Pittsburgh, became the first Penguins player to score four goals on the road since Mario Lemieux did so against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 26, 1997.
  • Simon Despres’ goal against the Islanders on Tuesday night marked the fourth-straight game that the Penguins have received a goal from a defenseman (5 goals total). During this four-game stretch, the Penguins have received 13 points from their blueliners (5G-8A). Overall this season, the Penguins have received eight goals from their defensemen, tying them with the Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators for the most in the NHL.

D Matt Niskanen, lower body

D Jack Hillen, shoulder
C Brooks Laich, groin
D Dmitry Orlov, upper body

Author: Michelle Crechiolo
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