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Game 51 Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins @ Washington Capitals 4/29/2021: lines, how to watch

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First place in the East is on the line as the Penguins and Capitals meet in DC

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (32-15-3, 67 points, 2nd place in the Eastern Division, six games remaining) @ Washington Capitals (32-13-4, 68 points, 1st place Eastern Division, seven games remaining)

When: 7:00 p.m. eastern

How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet in Pittsburgh, NBCSports Washington in DC, also available on ESPN+

Opponent Track: Washington is 9-5-0 in the month of April (the Pens are 9-4-1, for reference), but more recently the Caps have been playing some great hockey with a 7-2-0 record in their last nine contests. The Capitals are on a three game winning streak, beating the Islanders all three times they faced NYI in the last week.

Pens path ahead: Tonight is the start of the final regular season road trip for the Pens. Pittsburgh plays in Washington tonight and Saturday night, then play two games in Philly next week on Monday and Wednesday Tuesday. From there, the Pens return to Pittsburgh to finish the season with two against Buffalo on 5/6 and 5/8 and the 56 game schedule will be complete.

Season Series: This is seventh Pens/Caps game of the season, but the first since February 25th. Pittsburgh is 4-2-0 against the Caps this season (with Washington 2-1-3 from their perspective). The Pens won a shootout on 1/17, and an OT game on 1/19. On 2/14 it was a 6-3 Pittsburgh win, followed by Washington bouncing back for a 3-1 win on 2/16. The next two games saw a 3-2 Pens OT win on 2/23 followed by another Caps bounce back to win 5-2 on 2/25. Tonight and Saturday are the last two games of the regular season series, but possibly or even probably not the last time these teams will meet as the playoffs are looming.

Recent History: The Pens are 6-3-0 vs. Washington since the start of the 2019-20 season (with the Caps being 3-3-3 on their side of the results).

Playoff Picture: A Pittsburgh win tonight by any means (regulation, OT or shootout) PLUS a New York Rangers regulation loss (against NYI) officially clinches a 2021 playoff spot for the Penguins.

Hidden Stat: The Pens rank 30th in this season with their road penalty kill (67.7%). The Capitals are tops in the NHL with their home power play at 33.9%. However, the refs have swallowed the whistle in recent games: the Pens have gone to the PK just 11 times in the last five games (and have only 8 total PP opportunities in the same stretch). It hasn’t been the same for recent Caps games, with 17 power play opportunities for Washington in their last five games (with 14 times they’ve given opponents power plays).

Hidden Stat II: The Pens have killed 17/20 (85.0%) of Washington’s power plays this season.

SBN Team Counterpart: Check out Japers Rink for the latest in Caps land.

Player Stats at a Glance

via hockeydb:

—It’s been another great offensive season for the Caps, who rank second in the NHL with 3.43 goals/game (Pittsburgh is 5th at 3.34). Washington is tops in the NHL with 120 5v5 goals. The star players are producing as to be expected and with some decent balance from secondary players down the lineup to boost them to the top of league offensive categories.

—In net, it’s been back and forth with no goalie yet to emerge as the clear-cut number one option for the playoffs. It looked like Vitek Vanecek was fading giving up nine total goals in two games (both losses) on April 15th and 18th, but then he came back with a 18 save shutout of the Islanders in the last game. Ilya Samsonov has won his last four starts, dating back to April 13th, but also only has a .895 save% in seven games played during the month of April.

—In the last six weeks both goalies have started the same number of games (10) with Vanecek holding a slightly above average league save% (.913%) and Samsonov hasn’t been great there (.899%). It’s been feast or famine, Vanecek has two shutouts in this stretch, meaning he’s allowed 25 goals (3.13 per) in his other games. Samsonov has one shutout and has given up 27 goals (3.0 per) in recent games where he has allowed a goal. Fortunately for the goalies, the offense usually has no problem providing goal support.

—Is playing in one goal games a repeatable path for success? It has been for the Caps this season, so far they’re a super-impressive 17-1-4 in games decided by a goal. Interestingly, three of those five one goal losses on the season for Washington have come at the hands of the Penguins.

Tuesday Game Lines

FORWARDS

Daniel Sprong - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson

Anthony Mantha - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie

Conor Sheary - Lars Eller - Michael Raffl

Carl Hagelin - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

DEFENSEMEN

Dmitry Orlov / John Carlson

Brendon Dillon / Trevor van Riemsdyk

Zdeno Chara / Nick Jensen

Possible starting goalie: ?

Scratches: Alex Ovechkin, Justin Schultz

IR: Henrik Lundqvist (LTIR), Michal Kempny (LTIR)

—The biggest question to watch will be the situation with Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin has missed the last two games with a lower body injury, his first time missed with injury since 2015. The sense from coach Peter Laviolette is that it will not be a lengthy absence, but Ovechkin has not skated since suffering his injury last Thursday which has to put into question, if not doubt, towards his availability for tonight. Officially he is day-to-day, and time will tell if he will be playing tonight or Saturday.

—Old friend Justin Schultz has been out of the lineup since April 18th since suffering an injury. Schultz has had a nice turnaround season in Washington after struggling last year with the Pens. Schultz did skate in an optional practice yesterday and is still considered day-to-day, with his status for the next two games also unknown, or at least unannounced.

Former Pens playing a big role

Daniel Sprong has been hot, scoring three goals in the previous two games while moonlighting in the Ovechkin spot on the first line left wing. Sprong has bounced around the lineup and to healthy scratch territory at different parts of the season and has still yet to really find a dedicated and consistent role — a familiar theme in his career. Scoring that many goals is a viable way to stay in the conversation, though as always his hot streaks can turn cold and then usually defensive and mental deficiencies start showing. In this moment, though, his arrow is pointing up.

As mentioned above, Schultz has been surprisingly steady on the Caps’ second pair. He’s averaged 18:45 per game, fourth most among blue liners and pitched in 20 assists and 23 points in 42 games this season, after only having 12 helpers and 15 points in 46 games with Pittsburgh last year. Most of the turnaround has been at even strength, where he’s improved from six ES points last season to 16 this campaign. FWIW, Schultz’s 48.7% Corsi For% ranks lowest among seven regular Washington defenders, and he is probably going to fail to be a 50%+ Corsi player again, as he has every year since his career-defining 2016-17 season.

And then there’s Conor Sheary, who recently signed a two year extension worth $1.5 million annually as a reward for a nice first season in DC. Sheary has bounced around in the lineup too, and at times played third wheel on a first line like he did in Pittsburgh. As always, his production is very streaky — Sheary has no points in the last four games and just one point in his last six (1G+0A). But Sheary does have five multi-point games this season, including putting up five points (3G+2A) in two games on April 11+13.

The final former Penguin on the team stacked with them is Carl Hagelin. Hagelin has settled into a fourth line + PK role for the Caps this year. Hagelin isn’t doing much scoring lately with just five points (2G+3A) in his last 21 games and has been held without a point over the last six games.

And now for the Pens..

Yesterday’s practice lines

Forwards

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust

Jared McCann - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen

Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Jason Zucker

Colton Sceviour - Frederick Gaudreau - Evan Rodrigues

Defense

Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang

Mike Matheson / Cody Ceci

Marcus Pettersson / John Marino

Possible starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Scratches: Radim Zohorna, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Friedman, Sam Lafferty, Mark Jankowski

IR: Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Tanev

Taxi Squad: Juuso Riikola, Yannick Weber, Emil Larmi, Maxime Lagace

—There was some good news yesterday, as injured center Frederick Gaudreau was skating in Jankowski’s place on the fourth line and may be ready to return as soon as tonight. Gaudreau has been a pleasant surprise on the fourth line and Jankowski has been the team’s worst regular forward in the lineup, so this would be a quiet but important upgrade for Pittsburgh.

—And there was more good news for Evgeni Malkin. Malkin was cleared for full contact by the end of practice and skated on an extra forward line while getting some time with the first power play as he continues the process of his return. He hasn’t officially been ruled out for tonight, but practice lines suggest #71’s return will not today. However, coach Mike Sullivan did say that Malkin will travel with the team. If Malkin doesn’t play on Saturday, he very likely could be on track to return against Philadelphia in one of the two games next week.

—Brandon Tanev is a bit behind Gaudreau and Malkin, as he still was skating with the taxi squad extra players before practice yesterday. This is as expected, with Tanev’s return to the lineup possibly projected for the playoffs.

—Jeff Carter looks to be naturally acclimating more to Pittsburgh, as he spoke earlier about the differences and challenges of picking up his new system and team on the fly. Carter has three goals with the Pens in eight games — but all the goals have come in the last five games, including scoring the team’s lone goal on Tuesday. The newest Penguin has a pretty good history of success against Washington, tallying 30 career points (15G+15A) in 34 total games over the years against the Caps.