Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (12-8-5, 29 points, 4th place Metropolitan division) @ Washington Capitals (16-4-6, 38 points, 1st place Metropolitan division)
When: 7:00 p.m. eastern
How to Watch: Get your stream ready — game only available in America on ESPN+ and Hulu
Opponent Track: Like the Pens, the Caps have been off all week since playing (and winning) on Monday night via a 4-3 shootout win against visiting Anaheim. It’s been tough to defeat the Caps in 60 minutes this season, they’ve only dropped two in regulation in the last month and just four times total. Washington is rolling into tonight at 5-1-1 in their last seven games.
Pens path ahead: It’s night one of a back-to-back set for the Pens, who will play tomorrow at home for the first time in a while against Anaheim. In fact, after tonight the Pens are at home for five of the next six games through Christmas, including a fairly lax week next week with just two games as they play Montreal on Tuesday and then Buffalo a week from today (Dec. 17th).
Season Series: There will be four PIT/WSH games this season, with tonight being Round 2. The Caps took Round 1 with a decisive 6-1 win on November 14th in DC. 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: Kasperi Kapanen should be on the top line tonight, and playing the Capitals has worked out for him. Kapanen’s 10 points (5G+5A) in 15 games versus Washington are the second-most points he’s scored versus one team (NY Rangers, 11 PTS in 13 GP) [h/t Pens PR]
SBN Team Counterpart: Check out our pals at Japers Rink for latest and greatest in Caps land.
—The Alex Ovechkin train just keeps on rollin’ through the league. The sniper is up to 750 career goals and his 20G this season puts him second place in the league for goals. Ovechkin’s points rank third in the league behind only Edmonton’s star duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. His assists are way up too, the 21 helpers in 26 games this season have already eclipsed his assist totals of the prior two seasons (19 in 68 games in 2019-20, 18 in 45 games in 2020-21).
—Rookie forward Aliaksei Protas has four points (2G+2A) in the last six games and has been moonlighting in roles up the lineup at times.
—Kinda slim pickens for a first place team on who isn’t playing well as of late. Lars Eller only has 1G+1A in the last five games, and only two goals total on the season.
—Conor Sheary had 1G+1A in the game against Pittsburgh on Nov 14th, but since then has only played five games scoring 2G+0A (with both goals coming in the same game against SJ). He always seems to produce against his former team, though.
—Injuries and illnesses have given Daniel Sprong yet another opportunity to play again after he found himself again a healthy scratch this season. Sprong has 0G+1A in his last eight games, though he did score in the shootout against Anaheim. Sprong’s last goal was against the Pens, where he also recorded and assist that game. In his other 21 games this season he only has four points (2G+2A).
Caps keep tickin’
The Capitals have gotten on the rocket of star player production (read: Alex Ovechkin) and have gotten out of the gates to a great start this season. Their team card from JFresh is pretty incredible:
Their expected goals against has been going in the right direction under Laviolette, and all they need out of a goalie like Ilya Samsonov is a .916 save% to reward him with a 11-1-1 record so far this season behind a great process and almost always a ton of goal support. Washington is a team that can consistently out-score their expected goals, because they have the offensive skill (again, look at No. 8) that can put the puck in the net at a better rate than just about anyone.
The Pens, if you’re curious, are pretty close this season to the Caps — but with one major weakness that is sticking out like a sore thumb.
Yep, it’s finishing problems. Which makes it all the more important that the one player who HAS been finishing in Jake Guentzel is now out for a while. Now is really the time for the Zucker’s and Kapanen’s of the world to start finding goals for Pittsburgh.
Thursday Practice Lines
Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov* - Tom Wilson
Conor Sheary - Lars Eller - Daniel Sprong
Michael Sgarbossa - Connor McMichael - TJ Oshie
Beck Malenstyn - Aliaksei Protas - Brett Leason
Martin Fehervary / John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov / Nick Jensen
Matt Irwin / Justin Schultz
Possible Starting Goalie: Ilya Samsonov (Vitek Vanacek backup)
Scratches: Carl Hagelin (ill, tested negative for COVID)
COVID Protocol: Nic Dowd, Trevor van Reimsdyk and Garnet Hathaway
IR: Nicklas Backstrom (LTIR), Anthony Mantha
—*Evgeny Kuznetsov left practice early yesterday with what the team called a lower body injury. The Caps would be in big trouble down the middle if he is to miss any time. Coach Peter Laviolette deemed it precautionary and was “hopeful” Kuznetsov would play tonight, but as they say, hope in one hand..
—The Caps are traditionally a team that manages to keep their best players healthy and upright, but this year has been a challenge with Backstrom missing the whole season to date with a bum hip, Mantha on the IR, Oshie did a stint there as well.
—Washington also has two players who will be in the NHL lineup tonight that were on the board for the Pens to potentially pick in the 2019 draft (McMichael, Leason). Instead, Sam Poulin is the in AHL. This would be more telling in 2023 or 2024 but is just a little aside that sticks out.
And now for the Pens..
Thursday Practice Lines
Kasperi Kapanen - Sidney Crosby - Evan Rodrigues
Drew O’Connor - Jeff Carter - Danton Heinen
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn
Dominik Simon - Brian Boyle - Sam Lafferty
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Mike Matheson / Chad Ruhwedel
Possible Starting Goalie: Tristan Jarry (Casey DeSmith backup)
Scratches: Jake Guentzel (week-to-week injury), Jason Zucker, Mark Friedman,
IR: Evgeni Malkin (knee), Bryan Rust (undisclosed lower body injury)
—Some new makeshift lines, Zucker missed practices on Wednesday and Thursday with “maintenance days”, but consider us skeptical enough to leave him out of the lineup for now. It could be possible he answers the bell and is able to play, but two practice absences in a row can’t be speaking well about his health level currently even if he is able to play. With a few days off this week, there was no reason not to rest him and give him time, but the fact he even needed the break says a lot too.
Sid vs. Ovi, Round 60
Tonight will be the 60th head-to-head meeting of the NHL’s two biggest stars of the last 15 years when Crosby and Ovechkin square off again. Sid and the Pens have traditionally gotten the better of the action. From the Penguins PR staff:
The 2020-21 season marks the 17th season that generational talents Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin face off. The two have taken part in 59 head-to-head matchups, where Crosby and the Penguins have gone 35-22-2 against Ovechkin and the Capitals. Below are their stats when facing each other in the regular season:
Player GP G A PTS
Sidney Crosby 59 28 52 80
Alex Ovechkin 59 31 27 58
Not only is the Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry one of the NHL’s best, but it’s also one of the league’s longest-standing rivalries. Crosby and Ovechkin are two of just five players in the NHL to play for the same team since the beginning of the 2005-06 season along with Patrice Bergeron (BOS), Dustin Brown (LAK) and Ryan Getzlaf (ANA).
Milestone and streak watches
- Kris Letang is one point shy of getting the 600th of his career
- If Letang records that point tonight, he will have his first five-game point streak since Feb. 2020
- The Pens are on a franchise record 11-game streak without conceding a goal while on the PK
- Sidney Crosby is one point away from claiming 30th place in NHL all-time career scoring for himself (currently tied with Dave Andreychuk and Denis Savard). Up next is Mats Sundin in 29th place, who has 11 more points than Crosby entering tonight
- Crosby is currently on a six-game point streak (3G+8A)