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Caps Start Home-and-Home Set With Pens at Verizon on Monday

March 9, 2014
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March 10 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center   

Time: 7:00 p.m.

TV: Comcast Sportsnet

Radio: Capitals Radio Network


Pittsburgh Penguins (42-17-4)

Washington Capitals (30-25-10)


For the better part of the last decade, games featuring the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been rivalry grudge matches, with the two teams often neck-and-neck in the Eastern Conference standings and the games featured on national television.


This season, the Penguins are battling with the Boston Bruins as they vie for a second straight regular season crown in the Eastern Conference while the Capitals are scratching and clawing, trying to climb their way into a postseason position from the other end of the standings. The two teams meet for the final two times this season early this week when they play a home-and-home set of games on back-to-back nights that starts with a Monday night match at Verizon Center.


“We go into a tough game against Pittsburgh here in a couple of days and then a home-and-home,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “It’s another tough divisional game, two games actually. Good rivalry games, games that the guys in here get up for and want to play their best hockey for.


“We need four points in the next two hockey games here, especially before we have one more game and then go out on that real tough Western road swing. We have got to get points at home when we can, and we’ve got to get points against a divisional team.”


Washington comes into Monday’s game with high hopes, and it also hopes it can carry some momentum into the contest. The Caps are coming in off an uplifting 3-2 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday a night, a game in which they rebounded from a 2-0 third-period deficit to score three goals in a span of 5:02, snatching what looked like certain defeat from the fire pit and finishing up with their 30th win of the season.


Karl Alzner and Brooks Laich scored 32 seconds apart midway through the third period and Brouwer’s power-play goal with 5:13 remaining proved to be the game-winner.


The Capitals expect forward Evgeny Kuznetsov to make his NHL debut in Monday’s game, nearly four years after he was drafted into the organization. Washington selected Kuznetsov with the team’s first choice (26th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, but Kuznetsov elected to continue his career in his native Russia for the last few years, playing in the KHL. Now, about two months shy of his 22nd birthday, he is poised to make his NHL debut.


If he does play on Monday against the Penguins, it will mark the fourth straight game in which a player has appeared in his first game as a member of the Capitals. Also, Kuznetsov will become the 500th different player to pull on a Capitals sweater and appear in an NHL game.


Kunzetsov fought through some injuries this season while playing for his hometown team – Chelyabinsk Traktor – in the KHL this season. He played in only 31 of his team’s 54 games, totaling eight goals and 21 points. His team narrowly missed the playoffs last week and the club released him from the final few weeks of his contract so that he would be able to come to Washington and join the Capitals.


Kuznetsov arrived in the D.C. area late Saturday afternoon. He underwent a physical exam and watched the Caps-Coyotes game before going “home” with Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, with whom he will be staying for a while. On Sunday morning, Kuznetsov took part in a brief and informal on-ice skating session before meeting the media for the first time.


Going into these upcoming two games against the Penguins, Washington is one point south of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps’ win over Phoenix on Saturday halted a three-game skid; Washington is 3-2-1 in six games since the conclusion of the NHL’s Olympic break.


Newly acquired netminder Jaroslav Halak stopped 31 of the 33 shots he faced in Saturday’s victory over the Coyotes. Halak earned the win in his first game as a member of the Capitals, and it was his 25th of the season. That puts his two wins shy of matching his single-season career high of 27, established in 2010-11, his first season as a member of the St. Louis Blues.


Pittsburgh has a comfortable 14-point lead over the second-place New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division standings, but the Penguins trail the Bruins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference by a single point going into Monday night’s slate of NHL activity.


The Penguins feature the league’s best power play (25.5%), the NHL’s top penalty-killing outfit (87.2%), and they also rank among the NHL’s top 10 teams in both goals scored and fewest goals against.


Pittsburgh is making the final stop of a five-game road trip that began on March 1 in Chicago. The Pens have also been to Nashville, San Jose and Anaheim before stopping in the District to conclude their journey against the Capitals. The Pens are 2-2 on the trip so far; they’re coming in off a 3-2 shootout victory over the Ducks in Anaheim on Friday night.


The Penguins have downed the Capitals in both previous meetings between the two clubs this season, once in each building. Pittsburgh blanked the Caps by a 4-0 count at Verizon Center on Nov. 20 and the Caps suffered a crushing 4-3 loss to the Pens in Pittsburgh on Jan. 15.


Three times in that game the Capitals forged a one-goal lead over their hosts and three times the Penguins came back and drew even. Finally, rookie Penguins blueliner Olli Maatta scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal with just 1:54 remaining in regulation. That setback was the third straight in what would ultimately become a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2) for the Capitals, their longest skid of the season.


Pittsburgh has won only two of its last six games, but it has collected at least a point in four of them (2-2-2).