First place is on the line tonight in the Eastern Division…Will the Penguins or Capitals take it?
When: 7:00 p.m. eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet in Pittsburgh, NBCSports Washington in DC, NHL Network for non-local markets
Opponent Track: Thursday’s OT loss drops the Capitals to a 9-5-1 record in the month of April (the Pens are 10-4-1, for reference). After tonight, Washington hits the road for two games @New York Rangers on Monday and Wednesday, and then they return back home for a b-2-b with Philadelphia next Friday and Saturday. Then the Caps have a makeup game against Boston on 5/11 to conclude their regular season.
Pens path ahead: It’s game two of four straight on the road tonight for the Pens, who leave DC and head up the I-95 corridor to play in Philly next week on Monday and Tuesday. From there, the Pens return to Pittsburgh to finish the season with two against Buffalo next Thursday and Saturday (5/8) and the 56 game schedule will be complete.
Season Series: This is seventh Pens/Caps game of the season, but the first since February 25th. Pittsburgh is 5-2-0 against the Caps this season (with Washington 2-1-4 from their perspective). The Pens won a shootout on 1/17, and an OT game on 1/19. On 2/14 it was a 6-3 Pittsburgh win, followed by Washington bouncing back for a 3-1 win on 2/16. The next two games saw a 3-2 Pens OT win on 2/23 followed by another Caps bounce back to win 5-2 on 2/25. The Pens won 5-4 in OT on Thursday. Tonight is the last two games of the regular season series.
Recent History: Pittsburgh is 7-3-0 vs. Washington since the start of the 2019-20 season (with the Caps being 3-3-4 on their side of the results).
Playoff Picture: The Pens have clinched a current best-in-sports 15th straight trip to the post-season!
Hidden Stat: In these two game “mini series” of the 2020-21 season, Pittsburgh is 4-0-0 the first game the play the Capitals. They are only 1-2-0 in the second game “rematch” between the two teams.
SBN Team Counterpart: Check out Japers Rink for the latest in Caps land.
Player Stats at a Glance
—It was quite the active game for Nicklas Backstrom on Thursday, notching three assists and also coughing up a puck for a Kasperi Kapanen goal against. Backstrom looks increasingly likely to be the season team leader in points for the Capitals for the second time in his career, which he has only accomplished in 2016-17. Hopefully this season ultimately follows the same route as the 2016-17 season as well…
—A random stat that’s probably only interesting to me, but Washington has dressed players born in the decades of the 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s this year. Pretty rare to see four separate decades represented in the same season.
Thursday Game Lines
Daniel Sprong – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson
Anthony Mantha – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Conor Sheary – Lars Eller – Michael Raffl
Carl Hagelin – Nic Dowd – Garnet Hathaway
Dmitry Orlov / Justin Schultz
Brendon Dillon / Trevor van Riemsdyk
Zdeno Chara / Nick Jensen
Possible starting goalie: ?
Scratches: Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson
IR: Henrik Lundqvist (LTIR), Michal Kempny (LTIR)
—Alex Ovechkin took to the ice for the first time in a week on Friday at a Caps optional practice. He took to the ice early and then stayed for 15 minutes of team drills and departed. Officially his status is uncertain, but it doesn’t seem like he or the team is in a huge hurry to push get him back in the lineup right now as they gear up for the playoffs and make sure he gets a little further along in the process.
—John Carlson is also day-to-day with a lower body injury and didn’t play on Thursday but took to the ice on Friday.
—After Vitek Vanecek gave up 5 goals on 30 shots in the loss, the door has to be opened for Ilya Samsonov to get a crack at it tonight. The Caps have been a very even split in their goalie starts (each has started 15 games in the last 30 total) and it will be interesting to see where they’re thinking for the playoffs. As of now, it still seems more open and fluid a situation than ever.
Caps trusting the process against the Pens
Washington has only won two out of seven games against their rivals this season, but still had some positive takeaways from Thursday’s game. From J.P. at Japers Rink:
The Caps had the better of the 5-on-5 scoring chances (23-15) and high-danger chances (11-5) and, unsurprisingly, expected goals (1.86 to 1.69). All-situation numbers were similar. Vitek Vanecek stopped 29 of the 30 low- and medium-danger shots he faced. Sidney Crosby’s line had an expected goals-for percentage of 40, while being out chanced 12-4 (6-1 in high-danger), thanks in large part to Lars Eller and friends.
Put another way, the Caps “deserved” to win that game (and, at one point, were 74.9% likely to do so):
Of course, deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it, and the Caps did not, in fact win. But this wasn’t a “how the hell are we ever going to beat this team?” loss that keeps coaches up at night trying to devise new schemes and/or find new deities to try to appease. If it was a “wake-up call” of any sort, it was the same one they get every four or five games, a reminder that they need to maintain a high-level of focus and manage the puck better if they’re going to be successful.
And now for the Pens..
Possible game lines
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Jared McCann – Jeff Carter – Kasperi Kapanen
Zach Aston-Reese – Teddy Blueger – Jason Zucker
Colton Sceviour – Frederick Gaudreau – Sam Lafferty
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Mike Matheson / Cody Ceci
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Possible starting goalie: Tristan Jarry
Scratches: Radim Zohorna, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Friedman, Evan Rodrigues, Mark Jankowski
IR: Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Tanev
Taxi Squad: Juuso Riikola, Yannick Weber, Emil Larmi, Maxime Lagace
—There was an update yesterday on Rodrigues from Brian Burke, and the news was pretty positive. X-Rays and examination on his foot/ankle revealed no fractures from catching a puck and he will deal with swelling and be day-to-day.
—Burke also said that he did not expect Malkin to make his return today, but probably will play on the road trip against Philadelphia.
—That is presumably good news for either Zohorna, Lafferty or Jankowski, one of whom will get the opportunity to get back in the lineup tonight to replace Rodrigues. Just a hunch but we’ll take Lafferty here, who has a bit of speed and physicality for this matchup against Washington.
—Unlike the Caps who have no clear number one goalie, Tristan Jarry has clamped down in the role for the Penguins. The netminder celebrated his 25th birthday on Thursday and did so earning a win — the first time a Pittsburgh goalie has won a game on his birthday since Marc-Andre Fleury did so in in November 2009. Jarry has been incredible since turning his season around, he’s 20-5-2 in his last 27 decisions with a .922 save% to help wash away a dreadful start to the season. Jarry is also 10-1-1 in his last 12 games, dating back to 3/21. He’s firmly entrenched as the #1 Pittsburgh goalie and just racking up the wins lately.
—Think about it, after tonight the Pens have 2 games @PHI (3-6-1 in the last 10) and 2 games vs. BUF (also 3-6-1 in the last 10). Get a win tonight, and Pittsburgh has to be considered in the driver’s seat to win their first regular season division title since 2014.