Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (5-4-4, 14 points, 7th place Metropolitan division) @ Washington Capitals (8-2-4, 20 points, 2nd place Metropolitan division)
When: 7:00 p.m. eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet locally in Pittsburgh, NBC Sports Washington in the DC area, ESPN+
Opponent Track: The Caps went 3-0-0 last week, downing Buffalo, Detroit and most recently defeating Columbus 4-3 on the road on Friday night. That makes up for going 0-2-1 the week prior, which represent the only two regulation loss that Washington has suffered this season. They’ve done well to find ways to not lose in 60 minutes, and are up to second place in the division in large part because of it.
Pens path ahead: The Pens return back to Pittsburgh to play against Buffalo on Tuesday, then go back on the road and back to Canada to play in Montreal on Thursday and are over to Toronto for a Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday.
Season Series: There will be four PIT/WSH games this season, after tonight the teams will meet back in DC in a few weeks on December 10th. The Caps don’t come to Pittsburgh until February 1st, shortly before the Olympic break. Then the (regular) season series concludes on April 9th in the ‘Burgh.
Random fact: After scoring 23 goals in their first five games to jump out to a 3-0-2 record, the Pens have scored only 13 goals in their last six games, going 2-2-2 (h/t The Peerless Prognosticator with a great Caps-centric preview).
SBN Team Counterpart: Check out Japers Rink for all the Capitals news you could hope for.
—You have to give the devil his due, Alex Ovechkin is off to a career-best start in his age-36 season, which defies all logic. With 12 goals in 14 games to start the season, he just passed Brett Hull for fourth all-time in goals. Ovechkin’s durability and ability to play and produce consistently is truly a marvel, and one of the most impressive feats seen in the sport. He’s chugging on a pace to break Gretzky’s goal mark, and somehow only picking up more steam and momentum.
—After an off-season of trade rumors, and not having Nicklas Backstrom to start the season as he rehabs an ailing hip, there was a lot of pressure on Evgeny Kuznetsov. He’s answered the bell, looking very focused and living up to his immense potential and ability. It’s always been more about focus and consistency for Kuznetsov, and he’s in a groove right now. The Caps have needed Kuznetsov to be great, and he’s been that and more.
—A couple of former Penguins haven’t gotten off to the best of starts:
- pre-Christmas Carl Hagelin is barely producing points (nothing new for him this time of year). Not that Hagelin is producing many points these days anyways from a fourth line, PK and defensive type role, but he’s barely been a blip on the radar so far.
- Justin Schultz has but two points on the season, and is only playing 16:51 per game, sixth among Caps’ defenders. A team is in pretty good shape when Schultz can be the 6th defender, but his individual star is on the fade a bit.
- There was some hope this would be the year Daniel Sprong would live up to the hype, become a 20-goal scorer and finally make his mark in the NHL. So far, it’s only been middling, much like the story of Sprong’s career. He was a healthy scratch for one game earlier in the season, but otherwise has played a lot TOI role and has one point (a goal) in the last nine games.
- Conor Sheary only had one goal in the first 13 games, before scoring on Friday night (on a pass that bounced in, but hey, still counts). He’s got a few assists along the way but has been in that goal scoring slump
—Ilya Samsonov might be taking the ‘enigmatic Russian’ title from Kuznetsov. Samsonov has talent but is still more mystery and untapped potential than actual results at this point and has not been the Caps’ primary goalie to this point of the season. And yet, he’s also got a 4-0-1 record on the season, despite a .896 save%.
Friday Game Lines
Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Conor Sheary - Connor McMichael - Daniel Sprong
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby - Lars Eller - Garnet Hathaway
Carl Hagelin - Aliaksei Protas - Brett Leason
Martin Fehervary / John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov / Nick Jensen
Trevor van Riemsdyk/ Justin Schultz
Possible Starting Goalie: Ilya Samsonov
Scratches: Dennis Cholowski, Matt Irwin
IR: Nicklas Backstrom (hip, week-to-week, LTIR), Nic Dowd (lower body), Anthony Mantha (upper body, indefinite), T.J. Oshie (lower body, week-to-week)
—With many familiar names currently on the IR, the Caps will break in a bunch of new players to the Pittsburgh/Washington rivalry. Connor McMichael is the most notable as a very prolific scorer in juniors who is starting to make in the NHL. The Pens opted to draft Sam Poulin four picks before the Caps got McMichael..Leason is another 2019 draft pick from the second round getting the opportunity to make his mark in the NHL due to the injuries the Caps are going through.
—There’s also the long-haired blond Swedish speedster in Jonsson-Fjallby, who bares more than a passing resemblance to a younger version of Hagelin. And it will be hard to miss the 6’6 Belarussian in Protas, who in style and frame that Pens’ fans could compare to a younger version of a Radim Zohorna-type.
And now for the Pens..
Projected possible lines?
Jake Guentzel - Jeff Carter - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Evan Rodrigues - Kasperi Kapanen
Danton Heinen - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn
Drew O’Connor - Brian Boyle - Zach Aston-Reese
Mike Matheson / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Chad Ruhwedel / Mark Friedman
Probable Starting Goalie: Tristan Jarry
Scratches: Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon
COVID non-roster list: Sidney Crosby?, Brian Dumoulin?
IR: Evgeni Malkin (knee)
—Big question marks about the status of Crosby and Dumoulin, who presumably have not made the trip to DC to see the monuments. Todd Reirden was fairly demure, saying yesterday of Crosby: “We’ll have to see how everything goes, but he’ll be skating [Saturday] and we’ll take it day by day here”. So, we’ll see if the Pens formally take Crosby and Dumoulin out of the NHL’s COVID protocol. If so, Pittsburgh will have to make roster moves to trim players off the 23-player roster, which could again spell some or all of Juuso Riikola, P.O Joseph and Sam Lafferty back to Wilkes.
—One boost that can be more easily counted on is that Mike Sullivan has cleared COVID protocol and is expected to be in person behind the bench for the Pens after missing the last five games in the COVID protocol.