Capitals-Penguins preview: Injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby don't lessen stakes for Washington

David Steckel (39) and Sidney Crosby face off on Jan. 1. Their collision in the same game may have contributed to the concussion that has sidelined Crosby since he took another hit four days later.
David Steckel (39) and Sidney Crosby face off on Jan. 1. Their collision in the same game may have contributed to the concussion that has sidelined Crosby since he took another hit four days later. (Toni L. Sandys)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nothing needs to be said to any of the Washington Capitals a day before they face the Pittsburgh Penguins. No extra motivation or hype is required when these teams meet, although many of the meetings come readily equipped with it.

On Sunday afternoon, with the country poised to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, one of hockey's premier rivalries will be on national display once again. The last time the teams played, Washington captured a 3-1 win outdoors at the Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Jan. 1. Much has changed since that showcase event for both teams.

Despite the victory in Pittsburgh, the Capitals have spent the past month searching for a consistent level of intensity and effort. The Penguins, meanwhile, have adapted to playing without Sidney Crosby and now must react to news on Saturday that Evgeni Malkin likely will need surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee. Neither Crosby nor Malkin will play in Washington on Sunday, but that doesn't lessen what Coach Bruce Boudreau is preparing for.

"I think they'll be motivated, I wish they weren't, but they're gonna be. So we better be ready for a hurricane to blow into town," Boudreau said of the Penguins. "It's going to be a tough game and they'll be defiant without Sidney and whoever else isn't in the lineup. Ever since somebody said [Pittsburgh] couldn't win without him, they've won eight out of [their last] nine. They hunkered it down, and it's all about work ethic [Sunday]. That's just going to be two teams going at it and whoever works harder will probably win."

The Capitals are coming off an important 5-2 win over Southeast Division leader Tampa Bay on Friday that featured one of their most complete 60-minute efforts this season. From the start against the Lightning, Washington challenged and demanded control of the game with disciplined play.

But the Capitals want to maintain that intensity for more than one night, particularly with seven of the next nine games on the schedule against teams that would make the playoffs if they began now, including the Penguins.

"It is intensity, it is killer instinct," Capitals forward Matt Hendricks said. "We know that these points are important right now and we need to play that way right now. We can't play relaxed, we can't play comfortable thinking we'll win when we have to win. We need to win night in and night out."

For the Penguins, the Winter Classic was one of only two contests this season in which they had their top three centers - Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal - in the lineup at the same time. While Malkin suffered his knee injury Friday night against the Buffalo Sabres, Crosby is recovering from the concussion he suffered in early January that may have resulted in part from a collision with David Steckel in the Winter Classic.

Crosby's injury reignited the league-wide debate over how to best protect players from concussions, which are on the rise according to preliminary data from an NHL study conducted along with the players' union. Speculation of what precisely caused Crosby's injury, whether the run-in with Steckel, a hit by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman on Jan. 5 or both, ran rampant. Shortly after the Winter Classic, Pittsburgh players questioned Steckel's intent on the play.

For his part, Steckel said he isn't concerned about the possibility of retaliation when the teams meet on Sunday.

"I'm just going to go out there and play," Steckel said. "Like I've said before it was incidental contact. I'm just going to go out there and play and whatever happens, happens."

Rarely is a game against the Penguins not physical, but the Capitals said they are aware of the possibility that Pittsburgh could try to exact some form of revenge against Steckel or another player.

"It's their best player, obviously they miss him. So, I'm anticipating something will happen," Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. "It wasn't a dirty hit. If they try to do anything, we have guys that can handle that and we will stick up for each other. We're not worried about that."

How the Penguins will react remains to be seen, but recently Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said he didn't believe there was any malicious intent behind the collision, which he initially classified to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as "definitely dirty."

"I think everyone has got their own opinion on whether or not that was a cheap shot," Orpik said to reporters in Pittsburgh this past week. "I've played against that Steckel a lot. For as big as he is, he's not all that physical. I've never really seen him stick out as a dirty player. They don't have a lot of dirty guys on that team, to be honest."

Capitals notes: Boudreau said Alexander Semin, who has not played since Jan. 8 because of a groin injury, should return to the lineup next week. . . .

Tom Poti (lower-body injury) is expected to start practicing with the team in the coming days but won't play until next week's West Coast trip at the earliest.

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