Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (24-15-8, 56 points, 4th place Metropolitan Division) @ Washington Capitals (25-19-6 56 points, 5th place Metropolitan Division)
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh in the Western PA viewing market, NBC Sports Washington in the DC area, ESPN+
Opponent Track: From December 5th - 31st, the Capitals were arguably the best team in the NHL with a 11-1-1 record and out-scoring opponents 56-25 in that stretch. But calendar 2023 has not been kind to Washington; they enter this game with a 4-6-1 record in the new year and have lost their last two games, three of their last four and five of their previous seven. The Caps return home tonight following a three-game road swing that saw them win in Arizona but lose in Vegas and Colorado on Tuesday night. Despite the loss, Alex Ovechkin was encouraged by the team’s effort, in a game where Washington out-shot the defending Cup champs by a 39-26 margin.
Pens Path Ahead: The Penguins go back home to meet San Jose on Saturday night, and then it’s time for a nine day break. Pittsburgh is not back in action until February 7th after these next two games.
Season Series: In one of the more important games early in the season, the Pens skated away with a 4-1 win in DC on November 9th (which ended a seven-game losing streak, as you might recall). Jason Zucker, Brock McGinn, Jeff Petry and Jake Guentzel scored the goals, and Casey DeSmith only needed to make 24 saves in the victory. After tonight, sadly there is only one more PIT/WSH game this season, and it’ll be when the Caps come to the ‘Burgh on Saturday March 25th.
Hidden Stat: The Penguins have a reputation for starting slow, but Washington is even worse. Pittsburgh has out-scored opponents 45-40 in the first periods of games this season, while the Caps have been out-scored 33-41. However, the Pens had better beware of first intermission adjustments: the Caps are one of the NHL’s best second period teams, out-scoring opponents 65-41 in the middle frame.
Hidden Stat II: In the Crosby/Ovechkin era (since the start of the 2005-06 season), the Penguins have won 41 out of 71 total games between the two foes. It makes for an all-time 41-26-5 record against Washington for the Pens. (For the Caps’ part, their record is 31-28-13 against Pittsburgh). Ovechkin has 69 points (37G+32A) in 70 career games against Pittsburgh, Crosby has 85 points (28G+57A) in 65 contests against the Capitals.
Getting to know the Capitals
SBN partner blog: Japers Rink
Tuesday’s Game Lines
Alex Ovechkin - Dylan Strome - Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Sonny Milano - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson*
Anthony Mantha - Aliaksei Protas - Conor Sheary
Marcus Johansson - Lars Eller - Garnet Hathaway
Erik Gustafsson / Trevor van Riemsdyk
Dmitry Orlov / Nick Jensen
Martin Fehervary / Matt Irwin
Goalies: Darcy Kuemper (Charlie Lindgren)
Scratches: TJ Oshie (parental leave), Nicklas Backstrom (non-COVID illness), Alexander Alexeyev
IR: John Carlson (ear fell off, no really), Nic Dowd, Connor Brown, Carl Hagelin
—Ovechkin returned on Tuesday after a one-game absence due to an undisclosed injury. He looked fine, scoring career goal No. 811 and playing over 23 minutes so I guess he’s good to go.
—The heart breaks for Tom Wilson, who blocked a shot on Tuesday night and couldn’t finish the game and is day-to-day as a result. OK, maybe it doesn’t. If Wilson can’t go, Oshie might be able to slide right into his place after leaving the team earlier in the week to be with his family as his wife delivered a baby. If Oshie and Wilson are able play, the Caps will be stronger down their right side, perhaps bumping Aube-Kubel down the lineup, if not entirely out of it.
—Backstrom has defied the odds on returning quickly to the NHL lineup after a major hip surgery that traditionally has been a career-ender for all in hockey. Nice to see his dedication pay off to write the last chapters on his own. We’ll see if his illness has receded enough to play tonight and how he is able to get around the ice out there against the Pens.
—Mantha carries a high cap hit, but has been in the coach’s dog house for his play. He’s an interesting case study for a good player with decent stats and good advanced metrics, and yet he still always just leaves ya wanting a bit more. Starting with his 6’5 frame and not really being forceful or pushing himself to the max, he’s a good player but he could/should be a great one. All sides are being professional for now but with a $5.7 million cap hit in place for this season and next, something might have to give as far as his future in DC.
—Wilson and Oshie have missed time, but the goal splits on this team are astounding. Ovechkin has 31 goals, timeless as ever with a 17th season of 30+ goals. The next highest goal scorers on the team are Marcus Johansson and old pal Conor Sheary with 12. Just 12! Ovechkin takes up a lot of the goal scoring oxygen with the volume of shots he’ll pepper on the net, but there’s definitely an issue down the lines behind him.
For many years, the Capitals have been a team of durability. That’s gone out the window this year.
Net injury chart ($-weighted) through 19 January, i.e. game-by-game injury "gap" between team and opponent pic.twitter.com/b1N6dbsMLL— NHLInjuryViz (@NHLInjuryViz) January 21, 2023
The long-term absences of Backstrom, Wilson, Oshie and Carlson have hit Washington hard, not to mention down the lineup with Hagelin and Brown there too.
The Penguins were very healthy early on, what’s bit them has been the rash of defensive injuries late with one or both of Letang and Petry out for a while until recently.
—It’s strange to see the power play as a team weakness for the Caps these days. And the PK is a strength! What a world. Personnel losses have been a big hit there.
—Otherwise, the Pens and Caps are fairly similar. Washington is a notch better in all the defensive categories, but given Pittsburgh’s injuries that explains the dip and is an area that the Penguins will likely close the gap. Up front, Pittsburgh is a little better at generating expected goals, but doesn’t score any more due to poor finishing. Goaltending, PK, 5v5 goals for and against are all about equal across the board for where both clubs stand stacked up to the league.
And now for the Pens...
Potential Game Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Rickard Rakell
Brock McGinn - Teddy Blueger - Jeff Carter
Drew O’Connor - Ryan Poehling - Danton Heinen
Marcus Pettersson / Jeff Petry
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
P.O. Joseph / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Casey DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski
Scratches: Tristan Jarry, Mark Friedman
IR: Jan Rutta, Josh Archibald, Kasperi Kapanen (lower body injury, week-to-week)
—Really have been digging Drew O’Connor’s game as of late. The fourth line in general has been finding some momentum with the return of Ryan Poehling.
—Jarry was not on the ice yesterday after showing up to the rink on Tuesday night and surprising everyone by being unfit to play with an upper body injury. The team has announced he will not play in either of the two games before the longest break during the season, so hopefully he will be able to return when they do on February 7th.
—And, as mentioned up at the top of this preview, DeSmith was very good in the first Pens/Caps game of the season.
Sid and Ovi
Even though league and broadcasting efforts to trump up a rivalry have been exhausting at times, at this point it’s well worth sitting back and enjoying two of the legends of the game. Crosby and Ovechkin came along at just the perfect time for the NHL, the year after they started back up after a labor dispute wiped out a full season. The list of players who wouldn’t be back playing in the NHL after the long hiatus in the post-lockout world reads like a who’s who of the old guard and generation gone by: Ron Francis, Igor Larionov, Al MacInnis, Mark Messier, Adam Oates and Scott Stevens, all out the door, to name a few. Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman would hang on for one more season. Enter the two fresh faced kids that would have to pick up the mantle and run with it for the whole league. Crosby and Ovechkin did that and more.
Now they race each other up the leader-board for most points in league history, as Ovechkin is on a relentless march to surpass Wayne Gretzky in total goals.
Crosby could tie and pass Stan Mikita tonight, how about that! Hell, Ovechkin could pass them both with a monstrous night - and likely bad one for the Pens. It’s all too fitting that between Ovechkin’s durability allowing him to play in an unbelievable percentage of his possible games (he’s only missed 34 total games in 17.5 seasons), and Crosby’s heightened points/game ratio that the two rivals can never separate too far from one another in career points.
Eventually Crosby probably will gain some separation Ovechkin (by virtue of being almost two full years younger and has hinted about playing in the NHL likely longer than Ovechkin, though not directly due to outlasting his rival).
While Connor McDavid is also on this path to be one of the all-time greats, it’s very rare to see two of the sport’s very, very best. We’ve been spoiled to see it so much that it’s almost second nature by now, but that doesn’t diminish the meaning behind it either. Enjoy all the Sid and Ovi moments that we have left.