With less than a month left in the season, the Washington Capitals’ visit to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena is shaping up as a sizable Metropolitan Division showdown.
Washington (40-20-7) is tied with Philadelphia in points atop the division after falling to the New York Rangers 6-5 in overtime Thursday while the Flyers beat Carolina that night. The Capitals have the edge by one in regulation and overtime wins for a potential tiebreaker.
Pittsburgh (39-21-6) is third, three points behind those two clubs.
The Capitals have led the Metropolitan most of the season, but their 4-7-2 showing over their past 13 games has loosened the grip. Before the Flyers caught up in points, the Penguins briefly moved into first last month.
That has led to some angst over their play at this critical stretch.
“It’s got to be five guys playing offense and five guys playing defense, and right now we’re not getting that,” Washington center Lars Eller told the Washington Post.
Two years after they won the Stanley Cup, the Capitals are feeling the need to make a push sooner rather than later if they want to have a shot at another.
“It’s got to be now,” goaltender Braden Holtby told the Post. “Look at the last few years. The teams that win get going now.”
With a late goal to get Washington into overtime Thursday, Alex Ovechkin moved into a tie with Boston’s David Pastrnak for first in the NHL in goals with 47.
Pittsburgh has won two straight coming off a six-game losing streak. The game against Washington marks the start of 10 in a row inside the Metropolitan, and 14 of their final 16 are against division foes.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the team has had its full contingent on defense the past two games for the first time since Nov. 30.
The Penguins are still missing three regular forwards, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese, but are about as healthy as they have been in a season marked by loads of injuries.
“If you’re going to win the Cup, it’s four lines, six (defensemen), and a couple of good goalies as well,” said center Nick Bjugstad, who had an assist Thursday in his first game since Nov. 15 after having core muscle surgery. “You need as many contributions as you can get. We had a decent amount of guys injured, and this team has found a way with younger guys, call-ups.
“It’s reassuring, but we can’t let our foot off the pedal here. These games are important going forward. I think you want to be confident going into the playoffs.”
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin has six assists during the two-game winning streak.
The game at Buffalo also marked an interesting situation with the Pittsburgh goaltending. After rotating evenly between Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry for a month, Murray started for the second game in a row. He made 28 saves, including a couple critical ones, against the Sabres.
It’s not clear whether the Penguins have moved the arrow toward Murray in setting up one goalie to prepare for the workload of the playoffs.
Coach Mike Sullivan was mum on whether Murray would get a third straight start Saturday. “We’ll make a decision as we always do,” he said.
–Field Level Media