Nov. 20 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Pittsburgh Penguins (13-8)
Washington Capitals (12-8-1)
The first game the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will play as members of the same division since 1992-93 will be for first place in the newly cobbled Metropolitan Division. The two teams go head to head on Wednesday night at Verizon Center for the first of their four meetings in the 2013-14 season.
Washington started the season 1-4 and Pittsburgh got out of the gates with a 7-1 mark, but as the season’s second quarter gets underway, the Penguins and the Capitals are the top two teams in the Metropolitan. Pittsburgh enters the game with a one-point lead over the Caps, and the Pens own that lead by virtue of their 3-1 home ice win over the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night.
The Caps-Penguins rivalry thrived even as the two teams were curiously kept from the same division for more than two decades. Reuniting them in the Metropolitan might fan the rivalry, but it depends on whom you ask.
“I don’t think so,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “I think everyone else will hype that up enough that we won’t need to think about it. But no matter when we play them, in the playoffs or the regular season, it’s always a great game and it’s always a fun game to play in. It will be a big test for us.
“We’ve done well the past two games against good teams, and this is certainly another real good team coming in.”
Those two wins against good teams that Carlson refers to came in Detroit on Friday and over St. Louis on Sunday. The Capitals bring a three-game winning streak into Wednesday’s game, and Washington has also won six straight games on home ice. That matches the team’s longest home winning streak of 2012-13. The Caps had winning streaks of seven straight home games in both 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Washington jumped on the Blues early in Sunday’s game, notching three goals in the first period and riding that margin to hand St. Louis just its third regulation loss of the season.
Each of Washington’s two weekend wins – the Caps took a 4-3 shootout decision from the Wings in Detroit on Friday night – were accomplished without defensemen Mike Green (lower body) and John Erskine (upper body). Both are eligible to come off injured reserve for Wednesday’s game, but it’s not yet clear whether either will.
Green practiced with the team on Tuesday while Erskine did not. Erskine will almost certainly not play against the Penguins, and a decision on Green will likely be made at some point on Wednesday.
“I’m not sure,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “We’ll see how he feels in the morning, see how he feels in a little while, just to make sure. We’ll make a decision [Wednesday].
“He’s missed a lot of time. It’s a big game. I don’t want to put him in a situation where he is behind the eight ball. He hasn’t been able to skate and do a lot of cardio; I’m a little worried about his condition. We’ll see.”
If Green were to miss Wednesday’s game, Washington’s likely group of six defensemen would enter the contest with a combined total of 634 career NHL games spread among them.
Four of those defensemen – Steve Oleksy, Nate Schmidt, Tyson Strachan and Alexander Urbom – were not in the Capitals’ opening night lineup when the season opened less than two months ago.
“Our system helps them,” says Oates of his relatively inexperienced group of defensemen. “[Sunday] night, we played a really, really good team. And you look at the man-games; St. Louis’ defense man-games were over 2,000 and ours were under a thousand without Greenie. That’s a tribute to them and how far they’ve come. Great job. Urbs, and Steve and Schmidtty, they did a great job.”
“That might have been our best game in terms of getting the puck out of our own zone,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera of the St. Louis game. “We had tape-to-tape passes and execution-wise, it was great.”
Carlson has assumed a heavier ice time burden in Green’s absence, and he has assumed the latter’s spot at the point on Washington’s power play unit. People are starting to take note of Carlson’s performance of late – largely because he has notched five goals and seven points in his last eight games – but Carlson has actually been playing solid hockey for Washington for most of the season.
Carlson is the key defensive cog on Washington’s penalty-killing outfit, the second best unit in the NHL this season. He has averaged 4:17 per night in shorthanded ice time this season, the second highest figure in the league and half a minute more than any other Caps defenseman. Carlson has been on the ice for 64.1% of Washington’s total shorthanded ice time this season, the second highest mark in the NHL.
The 23-year-old Carlson and 25-year-old partner Karl Alzner have absorbed a heavier workload in the two games Green has missed, with Carlson logging a single-game career high of 32:26 in Detroit on Friday. Strachan has put together two strong games since his Thursday recall from AHL Hershey.
“The other two guys are handling the lion’s share of the minutes,” notes Oates of Alzner and Carlson, “and Strachs came up from Hershey and did a great job in two games, throwing him to the wolves and he played a lot of minutes. Hopefully the system can allow that to happen again [Wednesday].”
Oates would like to see Washington’s netminders have an easier time of it. Braden Holtby made a career high 46 saves in Sunday’s win over the Blues, and the Caps have surrendered 30 or more shots on goal in 15 of their last 16 games.
“You can always play better, for sure;” says Oates, “every guy individually and the group collectively. We gave up too many shots. The other night, Holts played a great game for us. I’d like to limit some of those shots. Not necessarily as many chances, but he had to make some big saves for us. We’d obviously like to cut that down as much as we can.”
One thing the Caps have improved is their five-on-five play, an area in which they struggled some early in the season. Over their last nine games, the Capitals have outscored the opposition 21-12 at even strength.
“The things we’ve been talking about in our own end,” says Oates, “especially when [an opponent] goes side to side are our adjustments. Because when a team goes side to side, they use the net as a pick, almost, and it affects your decisions. And I think we’ve done a better job of that, making those decisions.”
“I think puck management has been good,” says Chimera. “When we don’t turn the puck over, we’re a good hockey club. When you see guys like [Nicklas Backstrom] and [Alex Ovechkin] playing like that – getting pucks deep – that’s a big thing.
“There are times to make plays, but in the third period you have to get pucks deep and make the right plays. I think that leads to more success, and when you get to the playoffs you have to play that way.”
Pittsburgh is 13-2 when it scores more than two goals and it is 0-6 when it scores two or fewer. And the Pens have yet to score exactly two goals this season. The Penguins have lost three straight road games, scoring exactly one goal in each game.
“They’re one of the teams in the league that are a measuring stick,” says Oates, “and they are [Wednesday]. They’re a really good hockey team and you’ve got to see how you stand up against them. And they’re also one of our rivals, and they’ve got famous guys. They’re a really good hockey team.”
As always, the Penguins are explosive offensively. Although they rank “only” 12th in the league with an average of 2.76 goals per game, the Pens have scored three or more goals in 15 of their 21 games and they tallied three times in a span of just 4:04 in the third period of their Monday win over the Ducks.
With goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury seemingly back on the beam after some notorious playoff struggles the past couple of springs, Pittsburgh ranks eighth in the NHL with an average of just 2.29 goals allowed per game.
“You’ve got to wear them down,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward of the Penguins. “You obviously want to take away their space as much as you can, too. They’ve got some guys who can move and some guys who can put the puck in the net. Take away their space as much as you can, and try to pin them in their zone. It’s a lot of work for them to play 200 feet.
“It’s no secret that our line especially is going to try to get the puck in deep and try to make plays down there but to hold onto it, try to kill time a little bit but also trying to frustrate them a little bit and penetrate their defense. But we can’t let them break out easy, that’s for sure.”
The Penguins have managed to muddle through early season injuries to key players such as James Neal and Kris Letang, and both are now back in the lineup. But the Pens are still missing ex-Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun and veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi.
Vokoun is out indefinitely with a blood clot in his hip and Scuderi is also out indefinitely after undergoing ankle surgery.