Jan. 15 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (22-16-8)
Pittsburgh Penguins (33-12-2)
Washington finishes up a set of back-to-back games and starts a three-game, Metropolitan Division road trip on Wednesday when it makes the first of its two visits to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins this season. Wednesday’s game against the Pens starts a stretch in which the Caps must play eight of their next nine games on the road.
On Tuesday night in the District, the Caps came up on the short end of a 2-1 shootout decision against the San Jose Sharks. Washington has dropped each of its last two games by identical scores in the shootout.
After sleepwalking their way to a 2-1 shootout loss against the lowly Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center on Sunday, the Caps endured the same fate at the hands of a more elite opponent.
“I think it was definitely a step in the right direction for sure,” said Caps center Nicklas Backstrom after the loss to San Jose. “We weren’t happy about our last game we played against Buffalo so we played better tonight. Better puck movement and puck possession; I mean, we moved the puck well. That’s what I think is the difference.”
Wednesday’s game finishes up a busy patch of scheduling in which Washington played five games in just seven nights. The Caps come into the fifth of those games with a 2-0-2 mark in the first four contests.
“Obviously you want to win every game, but that’s not going to happen,” notes Backstrom. “We know we have a tough schedule right now, and we finish off five games in seven days tomorrow against Pittsburgh. It’s going to be a tough game.”
The Caps have struggled at times to keep the puck out of their net this season, but they’ve allowed two or fewer goals in three straight games for the first time in more than two months. When Washington started the month of November with four straight games in which it allowed two or fewer goals, it won all four games. That streak from Nov. 1-7 remains the Caps’ longest winning run of the campaign to date.
During its current string of games in which it has allowed two or fewer tallies, Washington is only 1-0-2.
“We worked as a unit,” said Caps defenseman John Carlson of the team’s performance against San Jose. “You’re going to get beat in the d-zone all the time, as a defenseman or a forward, that’s just the way it is. You just try to minimize them as much as possible.
“When we were down low, our center was helping us and our wingers were on the walls. We did a good job of getting pucks out when we needed to, just chipping it into the neutral zone. The easiest play sometimes is the best, and I thought we did a great job, all of us. And obviously [goaltender Philipp Grubauer] played amazing.”
Grubauer has started 12 of Washington’s last 17 games, and he is 6-2-5 with a 2.06 GAA and a .936 save pct. on the season.
It’s unlikely that Grubauer would draw Wednesday’s assignment against the Penguins as well. That chore may well fall to Michal Neuvirth, who stopped 32 of 34 shots he faced last Friday against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Washington.
The Caps played four straight games against Metropolitan foes last month, going 2-1-1. Including Wednesday’s game against the Penguins, the Caps have 13 games remaining prior to the NHL’s Olympic break that consumes most of the month of February. Seven of those 13 games will be played against Metropolitan Division foes. Washington is 9-5-2 against its fellow Metropolitan denizens this season.
“Tonight we’ll get in [to Pittsburgh] and get some rest,” said Caps forward Brooks Laich. “It’s an eight o’clock game, so we’ll be able to get a little bit more rest [Wednesday]. We know [the Penguins] are going to push hard the first 10 minutes. They’re going to do that, they’ve been resting and they’ll try to catch us maybe tired. But for our group, I actually think our energy level is pretty good right now. I’m not concerned about that. It’s about execution and focus and playing against a big rival of ours.”
Pittsburgh has been idle since Saturday when it finished up a three-game road trip to western Canada with a 2-1 victory over the Flames in Calgary.
The front-running Pens hold a 17-point lead over second-place Washington in the Metropolitan Division standings. The Penguins’ total of 68 points is easily the highest among all Eastern Conference clubs. Out west, only Anaheim (75) and Chicago (71) have more points.
The Penguins have been a consistently torrid group for most of this season, even though they’ve been plagued by a rash of injuries since virtually day one of the 2013-14 campaign. Pittsburgh has not suffered consecutive setbacks in regulation in more than two months, since a three-game skid from Nov. 6-13. The Pens are 22-5-2 since then.
Pittsburgh has not suffered consecutive losses of any kind since losing a 3-2 decision to the Habs in Montreal on Nov. 23 and following it up with a 4-3 overtime loss at the hands of the Bruins in Boston two nights later. Since that loss to the B’s, the Penguins are 18-3-1.
It has also been more than two months since the Penguins tasted defeat in their own building. Pittsburgh’s last loss on Consol Energy Center ice came on Nov. 13 in a 2-1 game against Philadelphia. Since then, the Penguins are 12-0 on home ice. They’ve outscored the opposition by a combined 49-27, and they’ve won 11 of those games in regulation.
Washington’s last win over Pittsburgh came more than two years ago, on Jan. 11, 2012 at Verizon Center. Jason Chimera scored the lone goal in the game and Tomas Vokoun backstopped the Caps to that victory in a 30-save whitewash; Vokoun is now a member of the Penguins but he has spent the entirety of the season on injured reserve thus far.
Although the Caps are 8-2-1 in their last 10 visits to the Steel City, they’ve lost each of their last three trips to town (0-2-1). Including its 4-0 win over the Capitals at Verizon Center on Nov. 20, Pittsburgh has won each of the last five meetings between the two clubs and has outscored Washington by a combined total of 21-9 in the process.
Pittsburgh’s injured list is like Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier; it goes to 11. In addition to Vokoun, the Pens are currently without defenseman Paul Martin and forwards Beau Bennett, Chris Conner, Pascal Dupuis, Andrew Ebbett, Brian Gibbons, Jayson Megna and Joe Vitale. Forwards James Neal (upper body) and Chuck Kobasew (lower body) are both questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Capitals.