Who: Washington Capitals (34-31-8, 76 points, 6th place Metropolitan Division) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (35-27-10, 80 points, 5th place Metropolitan Division)
When: 8:00 p.m. ET
How to Watch: National broadcast on ABC | ESPN+
Opponent Track: The Capitals received a huge boost— both talent- and morale-wise— with the return of top defenseman John Carlson from a fractured skull and severed temporal artery on Thursday. They celebrated by crushing the free-falling Chicago Blackhawks, 6-1. In the stretch before that, however, their play hasn’t been good enough to get them in the middle of the wild card race. The Caps have won just three of their last nine outings, and one of those victories came in a shootout.
- A little bit more on the Caps’ position: For the first time in years, Washington was a seller at the trade deadline, dealing Dmitry Orlov, Garnet Hathaway, Marcus Johansson, Lars Elder and Erik Gustafsson in a signal the slumping team was looking toward the future, not the 2023 postseason. Despite this wave of the proverbial white flag, however, the Caps remain four points behind the Penguins for the second wild-card spot. The Panthers stand in their way (currently one (!) point behind the Pens), both the Pens and Cats have a game in hand, and as of Friday morning MoneyPuck gave the Caps a 1.1% chance of making the playoffs. So Washington making it to the postseason would mean the Caps would need to go on a winning streak, and the Penguins and Panthers would both have to simultaneously collapse. Still— the chance is not zero percent. And the return of John Carlson provides a boost.
“We have nine games left to go on a run and do something special here. I think if we do get into the playoffs, we’re going to be one of the hottest teams to get in. We’re excited for the challenge and, obviously, a huge game on Saturday.” —Dylan Strome on facing the Penguins, via NBC Sports
Pens Path Ahead: The Penguins visit the Red Wings in Detroit on Tuesday before returning to PPG Paints for the last home stretch of the regular season, where they will face the Predators on Thursday and the Bruins and Flyers on Saturday and Sunday in a back-to-back set.
Season Series: The perennial rivals have split the season series in D.C. so far, with the Penguins taking the first game 4-1 on November 9 (Brock McGinn scored a shorty in a three-goal second period for the Pens) before losing 3-2 in a shootout on January 26 (Nicklas Backstrom beat Casey DeSmith in the shootout, while Evgeni Malkin could not solve Darcy Kuemper.)
Hidden Stat: The Capitals are 20-8-5 when scoring the first goal of the game, including 11-4-4 at home.
Getting to know the Capitals
SBN partner blog: Japers’ Rink
Potential Game Lines
Alex Ovechkin - Dylan Strome - Tom Wilson
Sonny Milano - Nicklas Backstrom - TJ Oshie
Anthony Mantha - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Craig Smith
Aliaksei Protas - Nic Dowd - Conor Sheary
Martin Fehervary - John Carlson
Rasmus Sandin - Nick Jensen
Alexander Alexeyev - Trevor van Riemsdyk
Goalies: Dary Kuemper (Charlie Lindgren)
Scratches: Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Joe Snively, Matt Irwin
IR: Connor Brown (ACL, out for regular season), Carl Hagelin (hip, out for regular season and playoffs)
- Fun fact: for the first time in 73 games, the Capitals iced all six of the core players who led them to a Stanley Cup in 2018 (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, TJ Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson) at the same time on Thursday.
- Former Penguin and two-time Cup champ Conor Sheary scored the opposite of a highlight-reel goal against the Blackhawks.
- Alex Ovechkin scored his 41st of the season during Washington’s 6-1 blowout of Chicago. If he can tally nine more in the Capitals’ nine remaining games, it would mark the 10th 50-goal season of his career. That might not be as improbable as it sounds: Ovechkin currently has four goals in his last three outings, and eight in his last ten.
- Dylan Strome has been heating up lately. He leads all Caps in the month of March with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists.)
- Rasmus Sandin has been a significant boost to the Capitals’ offense in the 10 games since he was picked up at the trade deadline, racking up 12 points (one goal, 11 assists). If only the Penguins could say the same about their own deadline pickups... in unrelated news, Mikael Granlund, who recorded zero shots on goal on Thursday, has now gone seven games without recording a point.
- This one certainly raises some causation vs. correlation questions, but watch out if often-scratched fourth-liner Protas gets on the scoreboard:
The Capitals are 9-0-1 this season when Aliaksei Protas records a point.— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) March 24, 2023
And now for the Pens...
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Rickard Rakell
Danton Heinen - Ryan Poehling - Mikael Granlund
Drew O’Connor - Jeff Carter - Josh Archibald
P.O. Joseph / Kris Letang
Brian Dumoulin / Chad Ruhwedel
Mark Friedman / Taylor Fedun
Goalies: Casey DeSmith (Dustin Tokarski)
Scratches: Tristan Jarry (lower-body injury, sat out Thursday’s game against the Stars, no timeline for return yet provided), Alex Nylander, Jeff Petry (upper-body injury), Jan Rutta
IR: Dmitry Kulikov (out week-to-week, lower-body injury, LTIR), Nick Bonino (out week-to-week, lacerated kidney, LTIR), Marcus Pettersson (lower body, LTIR)
- How hurt is Tristan Jarry? Was he playing through injury before he sat out the Stars’ game? Are the Penguins going to be able to give DeSmith any breaks if their other option in this crucial final stretch is Tokarski? Does that risk running DeSmith into the ground right before a potential postseason? What happens to Jarry in unrestricted free agency this summer after a season marred by injuries? So many goaltending questions, few good goaltending answers.
- It seems like Jeff Petry might be nearing return, but Kulikov, Bonino and Pettersson remain “status quo,” according to head coach Mike Sullivan.