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Game Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals; lines, how to watch

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Two old rivals set to clash again

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (6-4-3; 15 points, t-3rd in Metropolitan Division) @ Washington Capitals (6-4-3; 15 points, t-3rd in Metropolitan Division)

When: 7:30 p.m. ET

How to Watch: On TV nationally on NBC Sports Network

Opponent Track: The Caps broke a two-game winless streak by defeating the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 on Monday night. This is game three of a five game home-stand for them, with the next game coming Friday night against Columbus.

Pens Refresh: Lost 5-1 on Monday night to New Jersey and the sky is almost falling! (Not really, but you know, folks are getting a bit anxious on a 0-3-1 skid).

Season Series: Pittsburgh took the first game against the Caps in the Pens season-opener. The score was 7-6 and a wild, back-and-forth affair that saw the Pens blow a 6-4 third period lead, but win the game in overtime thanks to a Kris Letang goal.

SBN Team Counterpart: Japers Rink

Tale of the Tape

These two teams could well play another 7-6 OT type of game again tonight based on how their season is unfolding. Dangerous shooting and power plays (though the Pens have been in a slump recently) combined with a lot of shots and goals against. Makes for some fun, 1980s style hockey.

It’s also wild just how similar these two teams are. About mirror images of each other. The record is identical. They both are power houses offensively. They both look ambivalent, at best, defensively, leaving their goalies with terrible stats. It’s early season hockey with two powerful squads who know the key time is in April/May/June and not October/November, and play pretty much accordingly. Some nights they look championship-caliber. Others they barely show up to play.

In a rivalry game though, expect no shortage of energy and fireworks, as Pens/Caps never fails to disappoint with a spirited game full of not only star power but also twists and turns.

Player stats at a glance

from hockeydb

—For all the talk of a hangover, there’s not much of one here for the Capitals, certainly not at the top of the lineup. Alex Ovechkin has 11 goals in 13 games and looks as unstoppable as ever, standing mostly in the same place and doing the same thing, yet no one can take it away. He’s older but not yet slowing.

—Similarly, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom are also piling up the points; as you would expect from a 36% power play. All six of Kuznetsov’s goals this season so far have come with the man-advantage.

—Defensively though, a lot like the Penguins, the Caps have left a lot to be desired. Braden Holtby’s GAA is nearing 4, and his save % is under .900. After struggling last regular season (but being brilliant in the playoffs) one wonders how much future cause for concern there could be if Holtby isn’t putting up what was once typical Vezina-caliber numbers.

—Andre Burakovsky has not lived up to expectations with only one goal and one assist so far this season.

Expected Lines

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Dmitrij Jaskin

Chandler Stephenson - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J Oshie

Andre Burakovsky - Lars Eller - Brett Connolly

Jakub Vrana - Travis Boyd - Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny / John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov / Matt Niskanen

Christian Djoos / Madison Bowey

—Old friend Brooks Orpik (who actually scored a goal last month in the Pens/Caps game) has been out a while with a “day to day” injury. He didn’t skate yesterday and probably isn’t playing tonight. Bowey has gotten a chance in his stead and looked pretty good in a sheltered role.

—Boyd returned from IR for last game and setup two goals, one to each linemate and within the first 5:44 of the game. So unlike the Pens struggling bottom-six, watch out for the Washington 4th line to not only add energy but perhaps even score with the offensively skilled Vrana and the slick Boyd on that line.

Replacing Terrible Tom

In light of Tom Wilson’s latest dirty hit, the Caps have been going to the drawing board to replace the guy they’ve used on the first line right wing. Washington fans might play Wilson’s loss off as missing a modern-day Kevin Stevens or Rick Tocchet, but even Wilson’s modest numbers from last season (14 goals, 21 assists) have been difficult to replace as he serves a 20-game suspension.

Alex Ovechkin does have six 5v5 goals in 193 minutes this season, but only one assist. Evgeny Kuznetsov is goal-less at 5v5 but has seven assists, so that pattern is established of Kuznetsov passing to Ovechkin for goals. However, Ovechkin + Kuznetsov are only running a 43.6% Corsi For% together, and have been on the ice for 9 Goals for versus 12 goals against.

The Caps weren’t exactly a great shot-based possession team last year, but even then the Ovi+Kuz Corsi was 49% and they were on ice for +7 5v5 goals for, so there is some evidence that the right wing problem has dragged the two most important Caps down some.

Washington has tried a number of players there; from Brett Connolly to Devante Smith-Pelley to Jakub Vrana to Chandler Stephenson to last game Dmitrij Jaskin. Nothing has really clicked with Ovechkin-Kuznetsov as well as Wilson did, so they are no doubt counting down the games until Wilson can rejoin that line. Provided, you know, he doesn’t go and get himself suspended again for yet another dirty hit.

TJ Oshie did something nice for my sister’s friend

No lie, that’s one of my sister’s best friends from college in this story here. They’re nice people so it was cool to see something nice happen for them!

And now for the Pens

Infographic courtesy of the Penguins:

Return of the Zach

As we said over the weekend, the Pens’ bottom-six forward group look like it needed a shot in the arm. The team finally addressed it by calling up Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson from the AHL yesterday and re-assigned Derek Grant to Wilkes-Barre.

Also, an indirect clue from practice yesterday was that Daniel Sprong - long a staple on the 2nd power play group - was not practicing with them. Could Sprong be a healthy scratch for the second time this season tonight? There’s no official word, but reading between the lines a potential ZAR-Cullen-Wilson 4th line makes sense.

We all know Aston-Reese, but Wilson, 27, could make his Penguins debut tonight. He’s in his third year in the Pens organization, scoring 31 and then 42 points in the AHL last year. In 2018-19, Wilson has 11 points (6g+5a) in 11 games with Wilkes-Barre.

Wilson has played 34 total NHL games in parts of three different seasons with the Florida Panthers from 2013/14 - 2015/16. He has scored a grand total of 0 NHL regular season points in those 34 games, however he did have an assist in one of six playoff games he played with the Panthers in 2016.

Expected Lines

Dominik Simon - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust

Carl Hagelin - Evgeni Malkin - Patric Hornqvist

Jake Guentzel - Riley Sheahan - Phil Kessel

Zach Aston-Reese - Matt Cullen - Garrett Wilson (or maybe Daniel Sprong)

Jack Johnson / Kris Letang

Brian Dumoulin / Juuso Riikola

Olli Maatta / Jamie Oleksiak

—For more about how these line combinations have fared in the past, check out our article from yesterday if you haven’t already. Time to get hype for Malkin and the 2 Swedes!