The Washington Capitals already know it will take time for them to fully adapt to the style of play that new head coach Dale Hunter has spent the past three days implementing. When they take the ice on Thursday evening at Verizon Center for the second game in Hunter’s tenure, though, they will be facing a foe that will put everything they’ve learned so far to the test.
The archrival Pittsburgh Penguins arrive in the nation’s capital as the top team in the Eastern Conference with all of their offensive stars — Sidney Crosby included — in the fold, ready to take advantage of a Capitals squad trying to pick up a new system on the fly with games every other day.
Washington, which is 11-0-2 in its past 13 regular season outings against the Penguins, hasn’t faced Crosby since the Winter Classic at Heinz Field back on Jan. 1. It was during that showcase game that former Capitals center David Steckel collided with Crosby in the first of two hits to the head that resulted in the Pittsburgh captain missing more than 10 months with a concussion.
Since returning to the Penguins’ lineup on Nov. 21, though, Crosby has recorded two goals, nine assists and is a plus-7 in five games, posting at least two points in all but one of those contests. Crosby has a history of playing well against the Capitals, with 13 goals and 35 points in 21 regular season appearances.
“He’s a guy that you want to be physical with, but it’s not that easy,” Dennis Wideman said. “He’s extremely solid, he’s tough on his skates and he’s tough to move. You try to contain him as much as you can, but if you try to take a run at him he’s probably going to go through ya or around ya and get a goal. You have to be as physical as you can on him.”
Given that Crosby has only recently returned from his concussion, there has been plenty of attention paid to how physical a tone opponents take with him. Not hitting Crosby makes a team liable to be scored on, so the Capitals are focused on finishing clean checks in order to limit their talented nemesis. The goal is not to hurt him, but they can’t worry about possibly harming him, either.
“If you think that way it’s going to wreck at least my game; it’s going to wreck a lot of guys’ games if you’re too worried about his health and not winning the game for your team,” said Karl Alzner, who is glad Crosby is healthy and even asked team trainers for updates during his first game back. “It’s not really going to cross my mind. Hopefully, I can hit him and not put him out of action, that’s the thing. All of Canada would hate me.”
Alex Ovechkin joked, “I think right now the league look at him all the time, if somebody make hit against him probably going to be two minutes right away.”
Crosby certainly isn’t the only offensive threat that the Capitals will need to try to contain, either. James Neal leads the Penguins with 14 goals and 25 points, with Evgeni Malkin and Pascal Dupuis right behind at 23 and 20 points, respectively, and Jordan Staal is second on the team with 12 goals.
Given that Hunter’s focus in the earliest days of his time as coach in Washington has been shoring up the defensive play, this second meeting of the season against the Penguins sets up to be a trial by fire. Hunter brought in former Capitals blueliner Jim Johnson to help him install a pressure defense that relies on man-on-man responsibility.
Washington’s defensemen explained that Hunter wants them to mark opponents and places a great deal of expectation on each player to win his specific battle each time. The Capitals are also using a 1-2-2 trap system in the neutral zone to help prevent odd-man rushes, and the goal is for the system to also create turnovers and rushes in their favor.
“I think if we get on the same page with that it will bring our goals against down quite a bit,” John Erskine said. “It’s similar to man-on-man but you don’t want to be right on top of him, unable to adjust; you want to have that ability to take his options away.”
While the Capitals are still picking up the nuances of Hunter’s system, the hope is that the Penguins might provide more of an opportunity for Washington to get the offensive chances in transition that a trap-centric squad like St. Louis, which limited the Capitals to 19 shots in a 2-1 loss, did not give up.
“They will make a mistake,” Alzner said. “They play more offensive and they’re willing to jump in, and that’s where our system will work and we can capitalize on their mistakes. We’ve just got to be patient and execute, of course.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green skated for the fourth time in five days but there is no timetable for his return. The defenseman is expected to miss his 10th consecutive game with a strained right groin muscle on Thursday.