Seven points out of a playoff spot with 20 games left to play in the regular season, the Washington Capitals need points. It just so happens that to get any Tuesday night, they’ll need to go through the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, who sit atop the Eastern Conference and have won nine straight.
While every game against Pittsburgh brings an emotional, hard-hitting showing from the Capitals, they can’t afford to get caught up in the animosity that can exist between the two clubs. The points are the most valuable portion of this trip, Coach Adam Oates reiterated.
“Right now they’re a team that’s playing very good, very cocky,” Oates said. “And we need points, We can’t let the emotions get the better of us so that we do something dumb. We’ve got to play good hockey tonight.”
The Penguins are aiming for their 10th straight victory to extend a streak that has seen them win in a variety of ways. The wins haven’t always come easily — one came in overtime, another in a shootout, and they’ve needed to rally from behind a few times as well — but one way or another, Pittsburgh continues to win.
“It’s been a different guy every night. Obviously we’ve played pretty good hockey, but there are times kind of in there that we didn’t play well,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who leads the NHL in points (48) and assists (35). “There’s different things that happen throughout, so we’re just getting big plays and we need to continue to do that. Our depth is a strength of our team and if we want to have success we need that.”
The numbers the Penguins have racked up during this nine-game run are impressive, especially considering that their other star center, Evgeni Malkin, has missed six contests during the streak.
Led by Crosby, who has four goals and 13 assists in the past nine games, the Penguins have outscored their opponents 38-22. His linemates, Chris Kunitz (9 goals, 8 assists) and Pascal Dupuis (7 goals, 2 assists), have helped carry the offensive load as well, making it a challenge for any opponent to try and limit the unit’s effectiveness.
“Everybody knows Crosby, Malkin two best players in the league right now,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We have to be careful with both of them. But Malkin [won’t] play, he get hurt. We just have to get on top of Crosby right away. Don’t give him any space to handle the puck and create some plays.”
It hasn’t been all offense for the Penguins, though. The streak started on March 2 in the goal-scoring palooza of a 7-6 win over the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh simply managed to overwhelm its opponents with offensive firepower scoring 27 goals in the first five games.
But beginning in that fifth game, a 6-1 win over the Islanders on March 10, the Penguins haven’t allowed more than two goals against in five consecutive contests as they’ve focused in on defense and supporting their goaltenders.
Over the full winning streak goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury, who has made six of the nine starts, and Tomas Vokoun have combined for a 2.42 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
“I think right now we’re starting to find some consistency to our game, and particularly structure wise and defensively,” Craig Adams said. “It’s something you have to work really hard at and hasn’t come that easily for our team. At the same time, you find when you do play that way and you limit your turnovers and things like that, the games, they get easier. It’s one of those things you can lean on when you have guys out of the lineup. It’s something we’ve embraced.”