Who: Washington Capitals (24-12-9, 57 points, 4th place Metropolitan Division) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (27-11-7, 61 points, 3rd place Metropolitan Division)
When: 7 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh (ATTSN-PT) locally in the Western PA viewing area, NBC Sports Washington, ESPN+
Opponent Track: It wasn’t a great January for the Caps, who finished just 4-6-2 in the first month of 2022. The needle is pointing up though, with a 5-0 shutout win in Dallas on Friday night. Perhaps even better is that they’ve been inactive since Friday, so they will be the more rested team entering this game.
Pens Path Ahead: Finally, it’s the end of the road for a while. The Pens get a much needed and deserved break after today which ends a stretch of eight games in 13 days. Pittsburgh will be off for the All-Star break until next Tuesday (February 8), when they start a three-game road trip in Boston.
Hidden Stat: In the 17 game stretch from December 4th - January 22nd (15-2-0 record), the Pens scored a total of 27 first period goals. However, in the most recent five games (Jan 23-present, 2-1-2 record), Pittsburgh has been held without a goal in the opening period in every game. Scoring early might also be an issue, since the Capitals have only surrendered a NHL-low 10 road first period goals this season.
Hidden Stat II: The Pens are 6-2-0 this season so far against Metropolitan Division rivals (h/t Pens PR).
Trivia Question: Kris Letang finished January with 20 points (4G+16A) to become the first Penguin defender to score 20+ points in a month in a while. Which player was the last one to do it previously? (Answer at the bottom of the preview..)
Season Series: Pens and Caps are each 1-1-0 against one another, already completing both of the games to be played in Washington. The Capitals took a 6-1 blowout win against the Pens back on November 14th, and the Penguins paid them back with a 4-2 win in the previous game between the two on December 10th. After tonight, the rivals will meet once more on Saturday April 9th, again in Pittsburgh to close out the (regular) season series.
SBN Counterpart Blog: Check out Japers Rink for the news to know out of the Capital city.
—It’s been Vitek Vanecek emerging as the go-to goalie as of late, starting six of Washington’s last nine games, and three of the last four. After a shaky beginning of the season, Vanecek has a 6-3-0 record, .929 save% and 2.09 GAA dating back to December 10th (Ilya Samsonov is 2-4-2, .878 save%, 3.42 GAA in the same stretch). Vanecek made 29 saves in the shutout win over the Stars on Friday night.
—Alex Ovechkin has hung around the league leaders in points, an amazing accomplishment in his age-36 season. He’s currently on a season-long point-less streak of just three games. That’s probably not a good sign for the Pens, since the goals are going to pop off at some point after Ovechkin has “just” 5G in 12 games in 2022 (which means a “cold streak” for him still classifies as a 34-goal full-season pace..).
—Nicklas Backstrom has been a welcomed return to the Caps’ lineup coming back from off-season hip surgery. Backstrom “pulled a Crosby” by testing positive for COVID just one game after his debut, but has come on as of lately with seven points (3G+4A) in his last five games. Overall he’s at a tidy 12 points in 12 games on the season, like clock work for the consistent player who has hugged at about the point/game line over his career (992 points in 1,023 games).
Monday Practice Lines
Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Conor Sheary - Nicklas Backstrom - Daniel Sprong
Connor McMichael - Lars Eller - Joe Snively
Carl Hagelin - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway
Martin Fehervary / John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov / Justin Schultz
Matt Irwin / Trevor van Riemsdyk
Goalies: Vitek Vanecek (Ilya Samsonov)
Scratches: Brett Leason, Aliaksei Protas, Dennis Cholowski
IR: Anthony Mantha, TJ Oshie, Nick Jensen
—It’s the same story as it’s always been for Sprong: he was a recent healthy scratch for three games due to the coach not liking his “200 foot game”. The next stage was followed by a return to the lineup and scoring a goal and now we’re back in the cycle where he’ll do little over the next period until another healthy scratch resets back to square one. Pretty much the story of his career, but he is getting a good look and opportunity here on a line with Backstrom. Sprong will need to make the most of it before Oshie and Mantha eventually return, which will also make his fit in the lineup lessen.
—Nick Jensen going down with an injury is a sneaky big absence of Washington’s 4D. That pushes old pal Justin Schultz up the lineup and makes for a replacment-y caliber looking bottom pair, which based in history has usually been music to the Pens’ ears to take advantage of..
And now for the Pens..
Projected Game Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Brock McGinn - Evgeni Malkin - Evan Rodrigues
Radim Zohorna - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
Zach Aston-Reese - Brian Boyle - Dominik Simon
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Mike Matheson / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Tristan Jarry (Casey DeSmith)
Scratches: Danton Heinen, Mark Friedman
IR: Drew O’Connor (week-to-week, collapsed lung), Jason Zucker (week-to-week, core surgery), Louis Domingue, Teddy Blueger (broken jaw, out 5-7 more weeks)
—The Pens held an optional practice yesterday, with several veterans (Malkin, Carter, Dumoulin, Matheson, Ruhwedel and Pettersson) not joining the team for practice.
—Another absence: Danton Heinen, who was a very late scratch after taking the pre-game warm up on Sunday. Heinen was called “day-to-day” yesterday by Mike Sullivan, and after not being healthy enough to play Sunday or practice yesterday, it’s likely that Heinen’s All-Star break has already begun.
—Sullivan may need to tweak the lines above in some way, though. The Pens have only scored a total of six goals in the last three games, and all the goals have come from one of Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel and Rust. Finding secondary scoring has been a big issue lately.
Balanced scoring among Pens' Fs we saw earlier in the season is missing. Some of these guys aren't expected to score much, but still:— Bob Grove (@bobgrove91) January 30, 2022
ZAR (0 goals in 19 GP)
Rodrigues (0 in 11)
Simon (1 in 37)
Heinen (1 in 14)
Kapanen (1 in 10)
Boyle (1 in 10)
Carter (1 in 9)
McGinn (1 in 9)
And that tweet came before yesterday’s game, where none of those players scored a goal so you can just tack on one more game for all of them in their respective dry spells (except Heinen, who didn’t play).
Power play heating up
The return to health of Evgeni Malkin (and don’t forget Bryan Rust) has given the Pens’ their top five power play players to put out there all at the same time this season for much of January. And it was a power play that struggled big time early in the year but, surprise surprise, is now one of the NHL’s best. From the team’s PR:
Pittsburgh scored two power-play goals Sunday against Los Angeles, giving them 14 goals on the man advantage in their last 15 games. Their 14 power-play goals in 2022 rank second in the league (Colorado, 15). Pittsburgh’s 30.4% success rate on the power play in 2022 ranks third in the NHL (14-for-46). Since the turn of the new year, the Penguins have three of the top five power-play point leaders in the NHL:
Power-Play Points Since Jan. 1
Bryan Rust 10
Kris Letang 9
Brad Marchand 9
Cale Makar 9
Sidney Crosby 8
Six Players 8
Milestone and streak watch
- Evgeni Malkin is currently riding an eight game point streak (2G+7A).
- Sidney Crosby is two goals away from the career number of 500.
- Kris Letang’s two point game on Sunday pushed him to the 40-point plateau for the ninth time in his career and for the fifth straight season. Only one active defender has more 40+ point seasons (Keith Yandle, 10).
Trivia answer: Paul Coffey, scored 21 points (8G+13) in December 1990 to be the last 20-point-in-a-month Penguin defender before Letang’s January 2022.