PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Penguins are playing the Washington Capitals, and this time it’s divisional.
For the first time since 1998, the Penguins and Capitals face each other as division rivals. Back then it was the Atlantic, and previously the Patrick, but now they’re in the freshly minted Metropolitan Division, and Wednesday night’s matchup is a showdown for first place.
“We’re going to see these guys fairly often. We’re definitely well aware of that,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “These games, they all add up. Even though it’s early we need to make sure that within our division we’re good.”
The Penguins have 20 games left against the Metropolitan Division, while the Capitals have 24. But this is a good time to take stock with the regular season roughly a quarter of the way complete.
Pittsburgh has lost four of six, while Alex Ovechkin-led Washington is rolling along at 7-2-1 in its past 10 games going into Wednesday night’s game at Verizon Center.
“They’re playing very well, Ovechkin’s playing very well,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s playing dynamic. We’ll be butting heads in their building.”
As the Penguins try to right their play, their internal focus isn’t so much on the Capitals rivalry as it is themselves. It’s the third such “Wednesday night rivalry game” they’ve had, so Crosby is convinced he and his teammates can handle the prime-time spotlight.
Linemate and potential Canadian Olympic teammate Chris Kunitz agrees.
“We’re still trying to work on our own game, trying to get better,” Kunitz said. “Haven’t had the best stretch, but we’ve played some games really well. We’re trying to build on that. I guess it doesn’t matter who the opponent is, but we still want to get better.”
The Capitals would like to get better, too, even though their recent results have been favourable.
“I like where we’re heading, yeah,” forward Brooks Laich told reporters at Washington’s practice facility Tuesday. “We’re still not happy with our game. We still think that there’s a lot more in there, so that’s pretty reassuring, too.”
Picking up points in nine of 10 games vaulted the Capitals to first place in the Metropolitan with 25 points, passed again by the Penguins after they beat the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night. The rest of the division is bunched up, and no other teams have stood out in a positive way.
“When (the divisional alignment) changed this summer and you’re looking at the lineup of the division, it looks like a lot of very good hockey teams and the starts the teams have got off to aren’t fully what I expected,” Laich said.
Growing pains for the New York Rangers under coach Alain Vigneault and the early-season struggles of the Philadelphia Flyers have paved the way for the Penguins and Capitals to be the class of the division.
The Penguins got off to a strong start thanks to Crosby’s 20 points in the season’s first 12 games. He hasn’t had a multi-point game since Oct. 28 at the Carolina Hurricanes.
Centre Evgeni Malkin has just three goals but a team-best 17 assists. Bylsma expects him to play despite being given off Tuesday for maintenance.
Washington coach Adam Oates believes the key to stopping Pittsburgh’s offence is staying disciplined.
“You can’t give them too much power-play time because if you do, whether they score or not, they’re getting their touches and every offensive guy likes getting the puck,” he told reporters Tuesday. “Whether they score or not they’re going to get a lot of tick-tack-toe plays that look impressive and that gets their team going, As much as possible you’ve got to stay out of the box and you’ve got to limit their opportunities.”
The Capitals have the NHL’s second-best power play, with a conversion rate of 24.4 per cent. Seven of Ovechkin’s 17 goals have come with on the power play, but Bylsma knows the presence of playmaker Nicklas Backstrom and point man Mike Green makes it a fool’s errand to focus entirely on the captain scoring.
Ovechkin can score from in tight or at the top of the faceoff circle because he has one of the quickest releases in the league. Taking into account the shot from the blue-line and the one-timer in front, and the Capitals can hurt opponents in many ways.
“You just can’t cover them all,” Bylsma said. “You’re well-aware of what they’re trying to do and where they’re trying to be dangerous, but you just can’t cover every spot with a good puck-mover making that play in Backstrom. So you try to not let them get into that situation as much as possible. But it’s tough defending.”