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What To Watch For: Pens vs. Caps

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (21-16-4) vs. CAPITALS (21-17-2)

WHEN: Jan. 11, 2012 - 7:30 pm  |  WHERE: Verizon Center

WATCH: NBC Sports Network  |  LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM

The Washington Capitals enter Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh having dropped both games of their California road trip (Los Angeles on Monday, San Jose on Saturday) by identical scores of 5-2. It’s an absolutely crucial game for the Penguins, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the East – with the 10th-place Capitals just two points behind.

Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin have been heating up. (Getty Images)
The Capitals have been dealing with some significant injuries, as they were without top center Nicklas Backstrom and offensive defenseman Mike Green in their setback to Los Angeles on Monday. It was the third straight game that Backstrom, 23, has missed since suffering an apparent head injury after being elbowed by Calgary’s Rene Borque on Jan. 3.

Backstrom was placed on injured reserve Wednesday, and his absence will be a big blow for the Capitals as he leads the team with 42 points. He’d assisted on all three Washington goals in their 3-1 victory over the Flames the day he sustained his injury, the fifth straight game he’d earned a point.

Meanwhile, Green, 26, is having a second straight injury-plagued season. He left in the second period of Washington’s game against San Jose on Saturday with groin tightness. It was just the second game Green was playing in after missing the last 23 with the same injury – and just the 10th overall.

But despite the injuries, the Capitals are still playing good hockey overall. Before dropping their last two games, they went on a 6-1-1 run in their previous eight – and a big reason for that has been the play of two men with the same name – Alex Semin and Alex Ovechkin. Semin has points in eight of his last nine games, piling up five goals and six assists over that span. And although ‘Ovi’ was held pointless in the last two games, he’s generally looking like his old self – scoring seven goals and 11 points in that eight-game stretch.

Tomas Vokoun made his sixth straight start between the pipes on Monday and was replaced at the start of the third by Michal Neuvirth after surrendering four goals in the first two periods. Vokoun has an impressive 16-9 overall record, but Neuvirth, who’s 2-0-1 against Pittsburgh, may get the nod against the Penguins to give him a rest.

CAPS – MARCUS JOHANSSON: Johanssen spent much of Washington’s last game centering Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin on the top line and ended up scoring twice for the Capitals in the 5-2 defeat to Los Angeles on Monday, giving him his first two-goal game of the season. Johanssen, the 24th-overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, now has six points (3G-3A) in his last six games. The lightning-quick center with playmaking skills and two-way ability has set a career high for assists (15) and is just three points shy of his point total from last season.
PENS – THE DEFENSE: The bad news for Pittsburgh is that Washington’s snipers are finally starting to heat up – Alex Semin has points in eight of his last nine games while Alex Ovechkin has seven goals in his last nine outings. With that being said, the Penguins did a fantastic job of efficiently and effectively shutting down Washington’s elite talents in their last meeting, a 2-1 Pittsburgh win – especially late in the game when it really counted, limiting the Capitals to just two shots in the third period. The Penguins defensemen – Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy and hopefully Paul Martin – will need to dig deep and produce another performance like that.

Tonight marks the official beginning of the second half of the season for the Penguins.

The Caps are 6-1-0 in their last seven home games, outscoring their opponents 27-13 in that span. The Caps own the top power play in the NHL on home ice (24.6%) and the third-best penalty kill (90.2%) at home. Washington has not allowed a power-play goal at Verizon Center in its first nine games under Dale Hunter (26-26) and has allowed just one goal in each of its last four home games. The Caps have scored at least one power-play goal in four of their last six home games for a 44.4% power-play percentage (8-18).

The Caps' streak of four straight games with at least one power play goal came to a halt against the Kings on Monday. The Caps had gone 5-for-7 for a 71.4% success rate on the man-advantage in their previous four games before going 0-for-3 in Los Angeles on Monday.

Since 2008, the Caps have gone 12-2-2 with two shootout losses against Pittsburgh. Alex Ovechkin has registered 33 points (19g-14a) in 26 career games against the Penguins while Mike Knuble has compiled 46 points (31g-15a) in 63 career games against Pittsburgh.

The Penguins dodged a bullet on the injury front with forward James Neal. It was originally believed that Neal would be sidelined for “weeks, not days” with a broken foot suffered blocking a shot late in the third period on Jan. 7 against New Jersey.

But after further evaluation, it was determined the injury was actually a bone bruise and Neal, who will be able to play as pain permits, played on Tuesday vs. Ottawa. Get the full details on Neal's situation here.

Defenseman Paul Martin did not play Tuesday after missing that morning's skate and Monday's practice due to illness. And in a cruel twist of luck, his replacement – Simon Despres, recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton just hours before the game – left halfway through the first period with a lower-body injury and did not return.

Head coach Dan Bylsma had no update after the game, saying Despres would need “further evaluation at this point.”

In addition to the injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green (explained under Team Scope), the Capitals recalled defenseman Tomas Kundratek from Hershey late Tuesday evening. He will wear number 36 for Washington and will participate in morning skate at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

F Sidney Crosby, undisclosed
F Dustin Jeffrey, knee
D Kris Letang, broken nose and concussion
F Jordan Staal, knee

F Nicklas Backstrom, undisclosed
D Mike Green, groin tightness
D Tom Poti, groin

Author: Michelle Crechiolo

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