Capitals-Penguins preview: After slow start, Washington not lacking for motivation in rivalry matchup

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post - Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Arron Asham (45) and Washington Capitals defenseman John Erskine (4) fight during the first period of a game last season. Erskine won’t play on Sunday — he has been suspended three games for an elbow to the head of a Philadelphia player on Friday.

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After a slow start in the first eight games, Washington Capitals Coach Adam Oates hopes his team doesn’t need any extra motivation.

If the Capitals are going to make up lost ground in the standings, they need victories regardless of the competition.

But all of that may be precisely why there is no better time for the Capitals to face their most heated rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, on a national television stage for a Super Bowl Sunday matinee at Verizon Center.

Washington is looking to keep momentum rolling after earning its second win of the season on Friday.

The Penguins have won three of their past four, including a 5-1 victory over New Jersey on Saturday afternoon.

“They’re a team that can light you up for eight or 10 goals if you slack off,” Capitals veteran forward Jason Chimera said. “You’ve got to keep it up, you’ve got to have your best game. Right from goalie on out they’ve got a good team and some guys that can put the puck in the net. They’re a dangerous opponent, but sometimes that brings out the best in you. You play good teams and for whatever reason it brings out the best in us.”

It has been an uneven first two weeks for the Capitals. They show signs of grasping Oates’s high-pressure system, which thrives off transforming neutral-zone turnovers into offense, only to have the game plan vanish when faced with a strong push back from an opponent.

After Washington’s first win of the season, on Jan. 27 against Buffalo, it dropped two games on the road after carrying leads into the third period each time.

Now that they finally captured another victory with a 3-2 win over Philadelphia on Friday, the Capitals (2-5-1) want to build off that foundation. They can’t afford to keep falling behind the pack in the Eastern Conference.

“We need to start stringing some points together here,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We’ve dropped a lot the last couple games as far as points go and we have to try and get ourselves into a position where we can get back into the playoffs.”

Pittsburgh, which sits atop the ever-competitive Atlantic Division at 5-3-0, should serve as a litmus test of where the Capitals stand in comprehension and execution of Oates’s system.

From the offense trying to force turnovers, establish its cycle and create quality chances against former Washington netminder Tomas Vokoun (2-1-0, 1.81 goals against average, .940 save percentage) to the defense trying to corral Pittsburgh’s cadre of scoring threats, there won’t be room for error or inconsistency.

“I think we’ve been playing decent hockey the last few games,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s just definitely a team where if you don’t play that 60 minutes like we’ve been talking about we’re going to be in trouble because they only a need a couple minutes to score a few goals. It’s definitely a big test for us. But it’s the test we need right now.”

Led by superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who each has 10 points, the Penguins’ offensive depth is more than capable of straining even the most well-entrenched defensive systems. For Washington, the challenge will be to continue functioning as a cohesive unit rather than trying to freelance or abandon assignments in a scramble to handle the Penguins’ pressure.

“It’s never fun chasing Malkin or Crosby around, [defenseman Kris] Letang and those guys,” said Tom Poti, who figures to play his first game since Jan. 24 now that defenseman John Erskine has been suspended for three games for an elbow to the head of Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds. “But we have to stick together as a five-man unit and try to shut him down collectively. That’s the way to do it, I think. Or try to do it.”

While there may be no foolproof way to attempt to contain the Penguins, there is one certainty. The Capitals should have no problem finding the energy and an extra gear Sunday afternoon, even if it is their third game in four days.

“Pittsburgh — you can’t help but get up for that game. It seems like the whole city gets excited when you play Pittsburgh,” Chimera said. “If you don’t get up for these games there’s something wrong.”

 
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