On Wednesday night, the Capitals will look to bounce back from giving up a 3-1 lead and falling 4-3 in overtime in Tampa Bay on Monday night. They will have to do so against the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who are 1-2-0 to start the year.
The Penguins bounced the Capitals in the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, in 6 games in 2016, and in 7 last season. There is no question that the rivalry between these two teams is fierce. Let’s take a look at the top storylines heading into the Capitals-Penguins game on Wednesday, which will be televised at 7:30 on NBCSN.
1. Ovechkin vs. Crosby
Arguably the two best players in the world, it is always a big game when Penguins’ superstar Sidney Crosby and Capitals’ superstar Alex Ovechkin face off. Crosby’s Penguins dismissed Washington in the postseason three times, the last two seasons and in 2009 and went on to win the Stanley Cup all three times. Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last season and Ovechkin is red-hot coming into this contest, leading the league with 7 goals in 3 games played. He also got named the NHL’s first star of the week on Monday. Both Crosby and Ovechkin were top scorers last season when Crosby led the league with 44 goals while Ovechkin had 33.
2. Holtby vs. Murray
These two goaltenders are among the best in the league.
Matt Murray led the Penguins to consecutive champions while posting a .928 save percentage and a 1.95 goals against average combined in his two Stanley Cup Playoff appearances. The Penguins’ netminder hasn’t been great in his first two games this year, going 1-0-1 with a 3.84 goals against average and a .879 save percentage.
At the other end of the ice, Braden Holtby has had a strong start to the year, posting a .930 save percentage and a 2.40 goals against average. Holtby won the Vezina Trophy in 2016 and was a finalist again last season. He is coming off a strong game against the Montreal Canadiens, where he stopped 38 out of 39 shots faced.
3. Top Six Centers
There is no question that Sidney Crosby is one of the best in the business. Evgeni Malkin, on the other hand, makes the Penguins’ have a dynamic No. 1 and 2 center punch in the league, with all due respect to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton. Malkin has been hurt a fair amount the past few seasons, despite averaging 1.02 points per game in 2015-16 and 1.16 last season. Malkin is a very dangerous shooter, as he scored 33 goals last season. So far, he has a goal and 4 points in the Pens’ first 3 games.
The Capitals also have one of the top center depth in the league. Nicklas Backstrom was fourth in the NHL last season with 86 points and has quietly put up a goal and 5 points in the Capitals’ first three games, including a two-point performance in Tampa Bay on Monday night. Backstrom drives the Capitals power play and is one of the Capitals’ most consistent players.
Evgeny Kuznetsov the other weapon the Caps’ have down the middle. The center is coming off of a 5 goal and 10 point playoff performance, four of those goals coming against the Penguins last May, and has assisted on every goal that Ovechkin has scored this year. He currently leads the NHL with eight points, all assists, and is a big part of the Capitals future after signing an 8-year contract worth $62.4 million ($7.8 million AAV). He will have to stay consistent if the Capitals hope to remain hot.
4. Revenge Factor
Two seasons ago after the Capitals lost to the Penguins in six games in the playoffs and again in the season opener, they beat the Penguins 7-1 in Washington on November 16. After giving up a point that they should have had against Tampa Bay and giving a lackluster 3rd period in Game 7 last May getting outshot 11-6, the Capitals will feel like they have something to prove. The Penguins also were without defenseman Kris Letang the whole series and missed Crosby and right wing Connor Sheary for Game 4, where the Penguins won 3-2 and put the Caps down 3-1 in the series. Expect the Capitals to come out with a purpose when the puck drops at 7th and F tomorrow night.
5. Special Teams
So far this season, the Capitals have the fourth best power play this year converting on 33.3% of their power plays. The Penguins are also at a respectable 16.2% power play efficiency so far this season but that’s only 16th in the NHL right now. Despite that, these two teams are going to want to stay disciplined tomorrow night because anyone would want to have a power play unit with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie or Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Phil Kessel on it. Last season, the Penguins and Capitals tied for the third-best power play percentage efficiency last season, converting on 23.1% on their power plays last year.
These teams are also Nos. 6 and 7 on penalty killing efficiency so far this season. The Penguins have killed off 93.3% of their penalties taken, while the Capitals have killed off 92.8% of their penalties this season. While both penalty killing units are strong, do not expect a lot of power plays due to two of the strongest power plays in the league going head to head.
By Harrison Brown