The star power associated with the Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins rivalry will be on display, but a few elements will be missing when the teams meet in the Steel City on Friday.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who has 13 points in 13 games after a start slowed by offseason wrist surgery and a bout with COVID-19, is expected to be on the ice. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who ranks among the NHL leaders with 20 goals and 41 points, also is expected to play.
Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are week-to-week because of injuries. Guentzel was injured during the Penguins’ 6-1 victory Monday at Seattle.
“It’s too bad (Guentzel) got hurt, the timing with him playing as well as he’s playing,” Penguins general manager Ron Hextall said of the team’s leading scorer.
Guentzel, who has team-leading totals in goals (15) and points (27), was on a 13-game point streak when he came away with an upper-body injury. He left Monday’s game in the first period but returned and had two goals with an assist.
Pittsburgh second-line center Evgeni Malkin, another part of the rivalry over the years, has yet to play after offseason knee surgery.
Washington had three players – Nic Dowd, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and Garnet Hathaway – go into COVID-10 protocol in the past week. To be cautious, Wednesday’s practice was called off despite having a day off Tuesday. Carl Hagelin did not practice Thursday, with a COVID test pending.
“Just doing whatever we can to stay as safe as we can,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s just the world we’re living in right now.”
Barring evidence of a wider outbreak, Friday’s game still is on track to be played.
The Capitals have been one of the best teams in the league thanks to Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov (28 points). Washington is averaging 3.5 goals per game.
However, Laviolette’s insistence on responsible defense looms large in the team’s success, with a goal differential of plus-27, tops in the Eastern Conference entering play on Thursday.
“We’re still scoring goals, (but) defense almost has to be the priority if you want to be a good offensive team,” Laviolette said. “Our guys have worked hard.”
It’s scheme, too.
“We’re playing a little more of a zone-type defense instead of just man-to-man … Now you have that second layer of support, and it helps,” Washington’s Carl Hagelin said.
And it’s all over the ice.
“We’re playing good defense in the neutral zone and the offensive zone, and getting the puck back quickly,” Lars Eller said.
The Penguins, coming off a 2-1-1 Western Conference road trip to improve to 7-3-3 away from home, now can set their mind on revenge. In a game Nov. 14, also at Washington, Pittsburgh got bowled over 6-1 despite Crosby’s return.
Kasperi Kapanen, who is expected to be elevated to Crosby’s line Friday, said the Penguins’ performance then, “wasn’t our best, (but) the way we’ve been playing lately, I think our game is on another level than it was then. So we’ve just got to keep doing that.”
Ovechkin had two assists, and six Capitals, including Kuznetsov, each scored in the previous meeting between the teams.
Pittsburgh’s Marcus Pettersson believes a different result is ahead, thanks to the team’s current form.
“We’ve played good,” he said. “We want to bring that into Washington. So, bring some swagger and some revenge.
“It’s going to be a good game.”
–Field Level Media