Photo: Joe Sargent/Getty Images
The Washington Capitals head to the Steel City for their second trip of the season to face the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night. The Penguins swept the first series between the two teams, though both games required extra time. The Capitals fell 4-3 in a shootout on January 17 before losing 5-4 in overtime two nights later. Four of the Capitals’ next seven games are scheduled to come against the black and gold, who are scheduled to visit Capital One Arena for the first time this season on Tuesday, February 23, and Thursday, February 25. Action from PPG Paints Arena can be seen starting at 3 PM ET on Sunday and 7 PM ET on Tuesday. NBC will broadcast Sunday’s game while NBCSN (nationally) and NBC Sports Washington (locally) will cover Tuesday’s game.
The Capitals return to play after three games were postponed due to COVID-19 issues with the Philadelphia Flyers, who were scheduled to visit the District on Tuesday, and Buffalo Sabres, who were originally set to host the Capitals on Thursday and Saturday. These two games are only the second and third that the Capitals have played in a span of nine games. The Capitals dropped their last road game in regulation, a 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers on February 4.
The break seemed to come at the right time for the Capitals as they lost three consecutive games in regulation while being outscored 16-9 after a nine-game point-streak (where they went 6-0-3) to open the season. They have given up at least three goals in five straight games. With other teams in the division struggling, the Capitals woke up on Saturday third in the East with 15 points, three behind the Flyers for second and six behind the Boston Bruins for first. The Capitals have a game in hand on both teams.
Center Nicklas Backstrom leads the Capitals in all three major statistical categories with six goals, 11 assists (tied for 10th in the NHL season), and 17 points (tied for sixth). The 33-year-old posted a goal three points in his last game and has gotten on the scoresheet in all but two of the Capitals’ 12 games so far this season. Captain Alex Ovechkin, who has posted three goals and five points in his last two games, and forward Tom Wilson, who recorded a goal and four points in the Capitals’ 7-4 loss to the Flyers on Sunday, both have five goals and 12 points this season, though Wilson has played two more games than Ovechkin has this season.
The Capitals’ average of 3.58 goals-per-game is good for third in the NHL this season and their 37% power-play efficiency leads the league. However, their average of 3.58 goals-against per game enters Sunday as the fifth-highest. Their 81.4% penalty-killing rate is tied with the Vancouver Canucks for 11th. The Capitals’ average of 28.3 shots-per-game ranks 26th, their 31.9 shots-against per game 24th, and 46.7% faceoff-winning percentage is tied with the Montreal Canadiens for 26th.
The Capitals are expected to dress a full lineup for the first time in nearly a month as center Evgeny Kuznetsov (missed eight games on COVID-19 protocol), goaltender Ilya Samsonov (missed eight on COVID-19 protocol), forward Jakub Vrana (missed one on COVID-19 protocol), and defenseman Justin Schultz (missed four games with an upper-body injury) have all skated with the team throughout their break.
The Penguins begin a four-game homestand on Sunday. After the Capitals leave town, the New York Islanders will come to Pittsburgh. The Penguins are two games into a stretch of 10 where they will only play either the Capitals or Islanders. The black and gold were most recently in action on Thursday, when they erased a 3-2 Islanders lead with 18 seconds left in the third period and won 4-3 in overtime. The Penguins have only played three games in the past 14 days due to the New Jersey Devils’ COVID-19 pause.
The Penguins have had a bit of a tumultuous start to the season as they are 6-5-1, tied for fourth with the Islanders in the East, but they trail the Islanders as they have only won one game in regulation this season. Before Thursday’s comeback win on the Island, the Penguins were 1-3-1 in their previous five games.
Pittsburgh also underwent some changes in their front office as GM Jim Rutherford resigned from the position on January 27 and the team replaced him with former Flyers GM Ron Hextall. The Penguins also hired former Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke as President of Hockey Operations. Expect the Penguins to show a high degree of energy against the Capitals in an effort to impress the new brass.
Captain Sidney Crosby’s four goals this season are tied with forward Jake Guentzel for the Penguins’ lead while his 10 points in 12 games are tied with forward Bryan Rust for the team lead. The 33-year-old has just one goal and five points in his last eight games after posting three points in his last game against the Capitals, but he has had an assist in back-to-back games. Guentzel, 26, has two goals and four points in his last four games, while Rust, 28, has recorded points in all but three games this season. Rust recorded his first multi-point game against the Islanders on Thursday, where he had a goal and two points.
The Penguins’ average of 3.67 goals-against per game is even higher than the Capitals’ and is the fourth-most in the NHL this season. Their average of 2.83 goals-per-game ranks 20th and their 13.5% power-play percentage is 24th. The Penguins’ 70.3% penalty-killing rate this season is only better than the Devils (67.7%) and Nashville Predators (65.5%). Their average of 29 shots-per-game this season is 22nd, 27.1 shots-against per game fifth, and 51% faceoff winning percentage is 12th.
Capitals — Ilya Samsonov (1-0-1, .868 save percentage, 3.36 goals-against average this season), 23, and Vitek Vanecek, 25 (5-2-2, .903 save percentage, 3.18 goals-against average this season). Samsonov is 0-1-1 with an .883 save percentage and a 3.40 goals-against average in two career games against the Penguins, including a 24-save performance in the Penguins’ 4-3 shootout win on January 17 (also was his last start). Vanecek, who was pulled after allowing four goals and 14 shots against the Flyers, made 25 saves (.833 save percentage) in the Capitals’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Penguins on January 19.
Penguins — Tristan Jarry, 25 (2-4-1, .857 save percentage, 3.95 goals-against average this season) and Casey DeSmith, 29 (4-1-0, .885 save percentage, 2.84 goals-against average). Jarry has never faced the Capitals in his career while DeSmith has gone 2-1-0 with an .873 save percentage and a 2.92 goals-against average in three career games, including 42 saves on 49 shots (.857 save percentage) in two games against the Capitals this season.
By Harrison Brown