For Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, there may be no better test right now than Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 12:03 AM
Strip away all the extraneous, manufactured attention - the upcoming contest to be played outdoors on national television and the daily presence of a camera crew - and Thursday's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins would still be a big one for the Washington Capitals.
Two wins removed from their eight-game losing streak, the Capitals are looking forward to the opportunity to see how far they have come in scrapping their way out of their longest skid in more than three seasons. There may be no better test right now for Washington than Pittsburgh.
Winners in 13 of their past 16 contests after Wednesday night's 5-2 victory over Florida, the Penguins are second in the NHL and Eastern Conference with the league's leading scorer in Sidney Crosby on a 22-game point streak.
It may be all but impossible to lessen the ever-expanding spotlight on these rivals, set to face off again nine days later at the Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. HBO, meantime, is chronicling each team's every move in the weeks prior to the contest for its "24/7" series, the latest episode of which aired Wednesday evening. But at the heart of the matter is that one team, Washington, is ready to prove it is indeed out of the December doldrums against an opponent that has long represented the success that the Capitals wish to have.
"We're in a mini-turnaround. We're not where we want to be but it's better than going in 0 and 10," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's a great barometer to see where we're at because [the Penguins are] playing the best hockey of arguably any team in the NHL right now. So when you play against the best, you find where you have to go and where you have to be."
Boudreau added that he wouldn't comfortably say the Capitals have put the losing streak behind them until they've won 10 straight, but consecutive victories over Ottawa and New Jersey have brought optimism and lightheartedness back to the dressing room. But while their fans chanted, "We want Pittsburgh," at the end of a 5-1 victory over the Devils, the Capitals understand the kind of challenge that awaits them in the Penguins.
Washington's struggling power play, converting on five of the past 43 attempts (11.6 percent) over the last 12 games, will go up against the best penalty kill in the league; the Penguins entered Wednesday 88.2 percent successful on the penalty kill and have allowed just 17 goals against while shorthanded this season.
The consecutive wins came without help from the Capitals' top stars - Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green - who have all fallen into scoring droughts simultaneously. In 11 games in December, they've combined for just four goals, and neither Green nor Semin has scored this month.
Meanwhile, Washington's attention to defensive detail and the confidence of goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who is expected to start against the Penguins, will be tested by Pittsburgh's key forwards. Crosby leads all scorers in the NHL by 11 points on his 22-game streak and Evgeni Malkin has recorded nine points in four games since returning from a knee injury.
"We think we've made some progress here in the last week," veteran Mike Knuble said. Pittsburgh's "players will kill you if you give them the room. If you're not defending the proper way, they're going to eat you alive. So it will be a good chance to see if we're doing the right things, if we're on the right track."
For the Capitals, the measuring stick for success often seems to be their play against the Penguins. Whether that's appropriate or not, both teams want to be atop the NHL and Eastern Conference. There's nowhere to go but through the other, and comparisons are unavoidable.
"I think it's because we've come up together. They were kind of at the bottom of the pile years ago and so were we," Green said. "We've gone through the rebuilding stages together, sort of, and they've succeeded to win a [Stanley] Cup and we've yet to do so. Maybe there's a little bit of jealousy there, but we're working our hardest to get there. . . . Right now we just need to keep moving forward and Pittsburgh's a good challenge for us."
Capitals notes: Matt Hendricks said he expects to be ready to play against the Penguins if needed after missing Tuesday's game with an injury, the nature of which was not disclosed by the team. . . . Eric Fehr rejoined the team at practice Wednesday after missing the win over the Devils to attend his grandmother's funeral.