Tuesday Slew: Stay Out of the Box

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Stats in the face of your superstar narrative, this one is going to come down to special teams.

The reengerized rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin has NBC salivating ahead of their Wednesday evening contest, the first between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals since being reunited as division rivals this season.

Ignore it.

As it has so many times in the past eight years, this game will come down to special teams, where the two star forwards are unlikely to share the same ice.

The Penguins (13-8-0, 26 points) have been up-and-down over the last two weeks, winners of just two of their last six contests. Washington (12-8-1, 25 points) has turned its season around over the same span, picking up what was once more than a 10-point gap on the Pens to push themselves into a near-tie at the top of the Metropolitan Division.

How did Washington manage to close the gap? Their power play, which comes into Wednesday's meeting ranked second in the NHL in conversion rate and first overall in goals scored.

Pittsburgh will be tasked with shutting down the Caps' top unit, a job that begins with staying out of the box in the first place. The Pens have been assessed just 68 minor penalties this season, fewer than all but two NHL teams.

Let's shake out the possible special teams scenarios and have a quick look at how these clubs might make their hay (rankings expressed out of all 30 teams).

Should Washington get a man advantage...

Washington Power Play

21 Goals | 1st
24.4 Conversion Percentage | 2nd
3 SHG Allowed | t-2nd Most
86 PP Opportunities | 2nd

Pittsburgh Penalty Kill

9 Goals Against | t-1st
84.2 Success Rate | t-8th
0 SHG for | t-30th
57 Times Shorthanded | Fewest in NHL

Overall, it's a heavyweight bout. The Capitals have scored more power play goals than any NHL team, the Penguins have allowed the fewest. They haven't gone head-to-head this season, but while Pittsburgh's PK is middling along at a decent rate after last season's slump, Adam Oates has the Capitals PP humming.

This battle might come down to the home-away split. The Caps' PP is clicking at 30 percent at home (compared to their 24.4 overall success rate).

Pittsburgh's penalty kill? It's a healthy 91.7 percent unit on home ice. That number drops to a comparatively miserable 78.4 percent on the road.

Advantage: Caps all day.

But if the Penguins get a power play...

Pittsburgh Power Play

15 Goals | t-9th
20.0 Conversion Percentage | t-12th
1 SHG Allowed | t-8th
75 PP Opportunities | 15th

Washington Penalty Kill

11 Goals Against | t-7th
86.9 Success Rate | 2nd
1 SHG for | t-15th
84 Times Shorthanded | 5th-Most

Again, a match of strength against strength. The Penguins have middle-of-the-pack numbers on the man-advantage but do not want for personnel who can cash in on the advantage, especially now that Kris Letang (9 games missed) and James Neal (15 games missed) have returned to the top unit.

Washington has a penalty kill to match its power play. The Caps have the second best kill percentage in the NHL, a number that is outweighed by the number of chances they give up. Only four NHL clubs have surrendered more opportunities than Washington, though the Caps have done well to cover up for their mistakes.

The home-away split still has the clubs fairly evenly matched.

Advantage: Push.

The lesson to take away from all this is that the Penguins had better play five-on-five to keep things in check. Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals' leading goal scorer and points co-leader, is a minus-7 on the year. Thirteen of his 24 points have come on the man-advantage. No Capitals forward ranks higher than Mikhail Grabovski's plus-4 rating.

The numbers suggest the Pens will have more opportunities to play with an extra skater. But the Caps need fewer chances to do more damage.

Pittsburgh can contain Washington's offense at even-strength.

The job tonight is to keep all five skaters on the ice.

Tuesday Slew is a regular feature that will run Wednesdays throughout the season, apparently. Berate James on the tweets, @Slew_James.

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