When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet in the Pittsburgh viewing area, NBC Sports nationally, Sportsnet and TVASports in Canada
Opponent Track: The Capitals are riding a fancy seven-game winning streak. Though the competition hasn’t been exactly fierce (five of the seven wins have come against non-playoff teams), they’re still putting up numbers and carrying shots and chances for a change. Simply put they’re playing some of their best hockey at this time.
Pens Refresh: At 5-1-1 in the last seven, the Pens have stabilized after another traumatic outdoor game.
Season Series: Tonight is the final game of the regular season between these two clubs. The Penguins have won two of the first three games this season (though the Caps record is 1-1-1). The Pens won in Pittsburgh on October 4, the first game of the season in a thrilling 7-6 contest with a Kris Letang power play overtime goal. The following two games were in DC, Washington won 2-1 (courtesy a last minute goal from TJ Oshie) on November 7. The Pens returned the favor with a 2-1 win on December 19.
SBN Team Counterpart: Japers Rink
Tale of the Tape
—Most of the Caps trade deadline movement (Hagelin, Jensen) had in mind improving the penalty kill which needs it. Compounding the pain of a bad group is that they are asked to use it a lot. Washington’s 248 minor penalties rank third highest in the league.
—But as usual, and as expected with their skill, Washington has no problem shooting the puck. Pittsburgh’s shooting percentage has been regressing in the past few weeks. It had been north of nine percent and about fourth/fifth in the league steady for a while, but has now bottomed out a bit. It would be great to see that rise back up a bit, starting you know, like, right now.
Player Stats at a Glance
—Ovechkin churns towards yet another 50-goal season, unnecessarily demonstrating just how special of a goal scorer that he is. At age 33, he has no business leading the league again in goals, and yet, he is still overpowering goalies one heavy shot at a time.
—The Caps top-nine forward group can compete with anyone in the league. The stars (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov) are all reliable producers. Supporting players like Connolly, Vrana, Eller and Wilson are having solid years.
—Washington is another team like Pittsburgh that loves to establish possession, work in the offensive zone low, and kick out to defensemen for shots from high for rebound, tip or traffic situations to generate goals. The Caps have four defensemen with 23-plus points this season. Pittsburgh only has two with 15-plus points (though it would be three if not for injury to Schultz). Still, point being all of the Caps’ top-four defensemen are capable from the blue line in at creating problems.
Possible Lines (from Sunday’s game)
Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - TJ Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Brett Connolly
Andre Burakovsky - Nic Dowd - Travis Boyd
Michal Kempny / John Carlson
Dmitri Orlov / Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik / Nick Jensen
Healthy scratches: Christian Djoos, Chandler Stephenson
—As seemingly as always, the Caps enter the game a very healthy bunch with no players on IR or known major issues.
—Luckily for opponents, the Caps are probably handcuffing themselves a bit sticking with the veteran moxie of Orpik over a younger and better skating defensemen like Djoos. Or they just really need Orpik to help that bottom-10 PK out.
Backstrom - nine points (five goals, four assists) in the last seven games. He has never really been a goal scorer, but that’s quite the uptick considering he only scored 13 goals in the first 60 games of the season. But naturally as a veteran, Backstrom’s hitting his stride as the season heats up.
Burakovsky — As a player involved in many trade rumors, Burakovsky was in a slump this season. He has four points (three goals, one assist) in six games since the deadline has come and gone. Sounds modest enough, but he only had eight goals in the first 56 games of the season and has gone from occasional healthy scratch/non-factor to now being worked in as a meaningful bottom-six contributor.
Goalies - Braden Holtby’s season stats don’t stand out, but in the last month he’s 7-2-0 with a .925 save percentage. Backup Pheonix Copley is 3-0-0 with a perfectly respectable .914 percentage in this time as well. Holtby isn’t living in the .920-plus range all season long any more, but as we saw in playoffs, he can still rise his game to a championship-caliber level. He has basically done so in the last month, and unsurprisingly, the wins have been following close behind with an offense as potent as Washington’s.
Niskanen - Since February 1, Niskanen only has one goal and three assists (19 game span). His season assist numbers have been trending down for the last few seasons and are on track to have the fewest of his now five-year Capital career (if you can believe it’s already been that long). He’s also on track for his worst defensive year in terms of goals against in quite a while.
Oshie - He is pointless in the last four games. This one’s a bit scary, since Oshie always seems to play at a high level against Pittsburgh (and not just because he’s leaving his feet to making leaping hits).
Devante Smith-Pelly - This is reaching a bit, but the Caps are a hot team right now. Smith-Pelly isn’t even on the team at the moment, as he was waived and cleared and assigned to Hershey (at least partially with salary cap implications in mind). One of the playoff heroes of 2018 had a tough go in 2018-19, scoring only three goals and adding three assists in 51 NHL games. It’s possible he could be recalled for the playoffs when there is no upper limit of the salary cap (a modern day Miroslav Satan, if you will), but the Caps have younger and probably better fourth liners already like Boyd and Stephenson, so barring injuries there, it doesn’t look to be any opportunities available for DSP.
And now for the Penguins...
Check the game notes, eh bud?
Infographic courtesy of the Penguins:
Jared McCann - Sidney Crosby - Jake Guentzel
Teddy Blueger -Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Dominik Simon - Nick Bjugstad - Patric Hornqvist
Joseph Blandisi - Matt Cullen- Garrett Wilson
Jack Johnson / Justin Schultz
Marcus Pettersson / Erik Gudbranson
Brian Dumoulin / Zach Trotman
Expected scratches: Juuso Riikola (healthy), Kris Letang (upper body injury), Chad Ruhwedel (upper), Bryan Rust (lower), Zach Aston-Reese (hip)
Injured Reserve: Olli Maatta (upper body)
—Aston-Reese It isn’t officially out as of press time, but being as Blandisi was called up under emergency circumstances, it seems reasonable to assume he is unavailable for this one. His absence will be a big opportunity for Blueger, who has faded a bit (With a short-handed assist last game, but no points in seven straight NHL games prior). UPDATE: ZAR is officially listed as having a lower-body injury and his status is day-to-day. Blandisi will likely get the nod.
—The Pens were off on Monday for a well-earned rest day after the weekend back-to-back, so there is always the chance Letang could be ready to make a move towards the lineup too. But that’s wait and see mode at this point.
Eye on the Standings
—An eventful Monday night saw the Islanders down the Blue Jackets 2-0 and Carolina win on the road out in Colorado. Columbus and Montreal almost seem like a race for “who wants it the least” at this point, as they stumble towards the last Wild Card spot.
—Philly, by way of beating dreadful Ottawa, is now within three points of both. The Flyers bubble may be about to burst for good, as their next three games are WSH-TOR-PIT — a tough run, and the Caps and Pens have good records against Philly this year.
—Pittsburgh probably isn’t going to catch Washington thanks to this seven-game win streak, but just about any doubt would be removed with a loss tonight to drop the Pens eight points off the division lead. But a win cuts the deficit to just four and potentially a chance to stay somewhat within striking distance.
Key to the Game
Buckling down at home
The Pens are usually a dominant team at home (see 2017-18’s 30-9-2 record at PPG Paints). However, they’re just 20-12-2 at the Paint Bucket this year, giving up 106 goals (3.18 per game). Their penalty kill on home ice is just 75.3 percent, among the worst in the league.
This is a bad match-up, because the Capitals’ offense travels. Their 10.9 percent road shooting percentage in second best in the league behind Tampa’s wagon of a team, which has resulted in 110 goals on the road in 34 games (3.24 per game).
Matt Murray has won six of 10 career regular season games against Washington, but his individual stats show an offensive bloodbath on both sides is often the regular (3.62 GAA and .885 save percentage).
The Pens’ patchwork and ragtag defense has done well lately to limit high danger scoring chances, but this figures to be their toughest challenge. A rival on a big hot streak, who traditionally put up a ton of goals (even in losing efforts) in this game. There could be some fireworks tonight, but Pittsburgh really needs to clamp down, if even possible, and try to again to avoid a shootout.