When the puck drops tonight at 7:30 in the Mellon Arena, it will represent the final regular season game between our Washington Capitals and the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. But will this be the final time these two teams meet in 2011? My guess in probably not.
If the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings hold true, the Capitals will enter the 2010-2011 Stanley Cup playoffs as the #5 seed, and would play the current #4 seed…the Penguins. Other then playing the Montreal Canadiens again and trying to exact a certain form of revenge for last year’s first round ouster, how could you not want to face Pittsburgh in the first round? Given this city’s inability to beat any Pittsburgh team in the post season over the past 40 years, I for one, would relish a chance for one of my teams to finally dispose of any sports team from western Pennsylvania. The Caps of course can still catch the Tampa Bay Lightning for tops in the Southeast Division (they currently trail the ‘Ning 75 points to 72), and the #2 overall seed in the East. The Penguins task of leapfrogging the Philadelphia Flyers in the Atlantic is more daunting, given that the Pens are reeling of late while the Flyers are really hitting their stride and distancing themselves from the rest of the conference as the clear #1 seed and President’s Trophy candidate. Vancouver’s 85 points leads all of the NHL with Philthy trailing by just 2 points. But back to our boys in red….
The Capitals currently hold the regular season edge over the Penguins, 2-1, with wins in their last two meetings including New Year’s Day’s Winter Classic. The Caps only loss to Pittsburgh came December 23rd in a 3-2 loss in a shootout. Now many of you know my feelings towards shootouts and how ridiculous it is to end a professional sporting event with them. I would much rather a game end in a tie then be decided by shootouts. But I’m getting off point here. God I hate shootouts.
Now in some ways, this is probably the best time for the Caps to be playing the Penguins. As up and down as the Caps have been playing for the past couple weeks, the Penguins haven’t won a game in regulation since February 4th, and are coming off a 3-2 loss to Chicago yesterday. They will also be without stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Malkin is the more serious of the two, and will miss the rest of the season after tearing ligaments in his knee. For the record, I probably hate Malkin more then Crosby because, in my opinion, he’s a more well rounded player the Cindy. He can hurt you on offense, defense, and special teams. Crosby is a great goal scorer. Malkin is a better all around hockey player, and it’s those guys who give the Capitals fits. Jordan Staal, another Cap-killer has been cleared to play after being hit by the puck yesterday against Chicago, but without the Big Two of Crosby and Malkin, the Pens are going to find scoring difficult against a Capitals defense that except for one night in Anaheim, has actually played pretty well of late.
Another good sign for the Caps is the play from captain Alex Ovechkin over the past week or so. As the playoffs approach, #8 appears to be taking his game up a level with points in his past 3 games (2 goals, 3 assists), and he just looks quicker and in command, especially in the offensive zone. One of the improvements I saw against Buffalo was with the Capitals power play. Even though they were only able to put up one PP goal (thank you Marcus Johansson), they were much better when they had the man advantage, and that started with the play of the Great 8. Ovechkin was sharp with his passes, and had it not been for an All World effort from defending Vezina Trophy winner, Ryan Miller, the Capitals could have easily tallied on their first 4 power play chances. It was a big improvement over their power play performance of the past month when they at times looked over matched and disorganized, even when they had the advantage.
A big question for Washington is whether or not defenseman Mike Green will be available for tonight’s game. #52 is still suffering from the effects of taking a puck to the head two weeks ago in the Caps last matchup with Pittsburgh. All told, the Caps are now 5-7 in games without Greenie, but there’s no doubt his absence is felt, especially on the power play as Ovie’s wing mate.
Coming into the game tonight, I certainly like the Capitals’ chances as long as they play the way they did yesterday. And that remains the question surrounding this team as it moves closer to the postseason. Which Capitals team will take the ice? But with Pittsburgh being without it’s top two offensive weapons, the Caps are certainly catching the Pens at the right time. Let’s just hope they can capitalize on it, and improve their standing in the playoff picture.