The anticipation of a showdown between the Metropolitan Division co-leading Pittsburgh Penguins and host Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon is tempered some by the recent play from both teams.
Washington has lost four straight (0-3-1) and Pittsburgh has dropped back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 29-30.
To boot, the Capitals and Penguins lost to teams far below them in the standings on Saturday afternoon.
The Penguins gave up three first-period goals en route to a 5-2 loss at home against Buffalo, which started the day 18 points behind Pittsburgh.
Washington dropped a 3-2 decision at New Jersey, which began Saturday 24 points behind the Capitals.
The Penguins and Capitals each have 80 points, although Pittsburgh has a game in hand.
Sunday marks the first of three games between the division rivals during this stretch run of the season, games that could go a long way toward determining playoff positioning with home-ice implications.
One bright spot for Washington is superstar captain Alex Ovechkin reached a major milestone Saturday with his 700th career goal. He is the eighth player in NHL history, and the first Russian, to reach that number.
“It’s a special moment, obviously,” said Ovechkin, who heightened the suspense as he had one goal in six games before getting No. 700.
“When you get closer, you start (wondering) when it’s going to happen. Finally, it’s over, so we don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
At the same time, Ovechkin is mindful of what his team has done lately.
“Obviously, it’s a little struggle right now,” he said. “We have to fight through it, and everything’s going to be OK.”
Pittsburgh isn’t on as long a losing skid, but the concern might run deeper. The Penguins have been critical of their play, particularly their team defense but also their decision-making in general.
“We haven’t played great the last, like, 10 games,” said center Evgeni Malkin, who scored both of Pittsburgh’s goals Saturday.
“Same mistakes We try and play easy. It’s not the right way. With, like, 20 games left, everyone is trying to fight (for) the playoffs. We think we’re fine – first in the division … but every team is close.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has been uncharacteristically critical after the past couple games.
“I’m both disappointed and concerned,” Sullivan said. “We’re saying the right things, but our actions have to follow our words.
“I know our guys know how to play, but that’s not the issue. The challenge is, are we in the right mindset? Are we thinking the right way before the puck drops, and are we committed and willing to play that way for 60 minutes? That’s discipline, and we haven’t had it the last few games.”
Perhaps a showdown with Washington, a long-time rival, will change that. Malkin hopes so.
“This is a huge game for us, both teams,” Malkin said. “We need to be ready. It’s an early game, 12 o’clock. We need to be ready.
“It will be an interesting game. We like to play against each other. We hate each other. But I can’t wait.”
–Field Level Media