February 14 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena
Time: 3 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Washington Capitals 6-3-3
Pittsburgh Penguins 6-5-1
After a week of having their season paused and each of their last three scheduled games postponed until later in the season, the Caps finally return to the ice and to live action on Sunday in Pittsburgh against the Penguins.
Washington’s most recent game was a 7-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in District last Sunday, the Caps’ third straight loss. That game continued a string of games in which the Capitals muddled through with a makeshift and constantly changing roster and lineup, the result of a spate of injuries and having a quartet of key players unavailable for an extended period of time because of COVID protocol.
Last Monday, the Caps learned that they would not be playing scheduled games in Buffalo on Thursday and Saturday this week because of a COVID outbreak among the Sabres. With Philadelphia also sitting idle on Thursday and Saturday because of an infection among New Jersey players, it made some sense to send the Caps to Philly to face the Flyers on those nights instead. But on Tuesday morning, some COVID issues among the Flyers sprang up, postponing that night’s Flyers-Caps rematch in D.C., and scotching any idea of the two clubs playing later in the week in Philadelphia.
Instead, the Caps had a trio of practice days and an off day in preparation for their upcoming two-game set with the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Washington certainly wasn’t looking for a week off or to have three games postponed for future shoehorning into an already busy and condensed scheduled, but they knew that such a pause was a realistic possibility at some point in this outlier of an NHL season.
Given the Caps’ overall state of health at this time last week, the unexpected pause may have come at an optimal time. The Caps had a chance to rest and reset and to ramp up the conditioning and battle levels of some players who had been idling for a while.
“I think you can look at it both ways,” says Caps center Nic Dowd. “Some guys would rather be thrown into the fire; and you get into game shape by playing games. That’s no secret. You can practice all summer – like we do – and then you come into camp and guys are still complaining about how you don’t feel good yet because you haven’t played the game. I mean, it’s the anxiety, the stress and the work is different; you just can’t emulate it.
“I think it gives guys a little bit more time to heal if guys need to heal. And we did play a lot of games in a short period of time, and I think that’ll give guys time to get their body back to neutral and get ready to go. But I think it’s just all based on individual. Myself, I’d rather just keep playing. Yeah, we lost three games in a row, but now we got to think about it [for a week].”
Washington was missing forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana when it played most recently, and center Lars Eller had just returned from a four-game absence. All those players and defenseman Justin Schultz are expected to be back in the Caps’ lineup for Sunday’s game against the Penguins.
“Under normal circumstances, you’d like to play as quickly again after a loss I think, to redeem yourself,” says Eller. “But regardless, you have to move on mentally pretty quickly and I think everybody is doing that.
“I think next game we play in Pittsburgh, we should be fired up not just because we lost our last three games, but because of what happened last time we went in there, and hopefully learn from those lessons. So it’s not just about the last three games; it’s stuff prior to that, too. It’s a big game.”
What Eller is referring to is the Caps’ previous visit to Pittsburgh last month. The Caps let leads slip away in each of those games, permitting the Pens to pick up a pair of points in each contest while settling for just one themselves.
In the second of those losses, the Caps lost hold of a three-goal lead in the second, yielding three special teams goals – including the first 3-on-5 goal against they’ve surrendered since 2008 – en route to a 5-4 overtime loss.
“There were things that we did in Pittsburgh that I liked, and there were things that we didn’t do,” says Caps coach Peter Laviolette, of his team’s previous trip to town. “I thought we were a little bit careless with our game at times with the puck, whether it be dumping it in or turning it over into the middle of the ice. And the fact that we didn’t complete the game; we didn’t play the full 60 minutes and press on. So there are things that we’ll talk about and look to get better at.”
Like most teams in the East Division, Pittsburgh has been impacted by the outbreaks suffered by the other clubs in their divisional ecosystem; the Pens had a pair of home games against New Jersey postponed earlier in the month.
Since coming from behind to take a pair of games from the Capitals here in Pittsburgh last month, the Penguins have split eight games (4-3-1). Most recently, they’re coming off another comeback victory over the Islanders in New York on Thursday night, a 4-3 shootout triumph.
The Pens entered the third period of Thursday’s game with the Isles all even at 2-2 heading into the third period. Pittsburgh fell behind on Mathew Barzal’s unassisted goal with 6:25 left but rallied to force overtime on an Evgeni Malkin goal in the waning seconds of regulation. Sidney Crosby won it for the Pens in the skills competition.
Pittsburgh is in the midst of a 10-game stretch of the schedule in which it faces only two different opponents: Washington (four times) and the Islanders (six). The Pens are slated to make the first of their two visits to D.C. for games on Feb. 23 and 25.
Since the Caps last visited the Steel City just under a month ago, the Pens have made a lot of hockey headlines with the surprising and abrupt resignation of Jim Rutherford as the team’s general manager, and the subsequent hiring of former Philly GM Ron Hextall as his successor. The inimitable Brian Burke joins Hextall in the Pittsburgh front office; Burke will serve as president of hockey operations for the Penguins.