With first place in East at stake, Capitals clash with Penguins

NHL Hockey

The Washington Capitals hold a one-point lead over Pittsburgh in the East Division, and they can add to that in a key late-season matchup with the visiting Penguins on Thursday night.

The Capitals (32-13-4, 68 points) took over the top spot after a 1-0 victory over the Islanders on Tuesday completed a sweep of the three-game series with the New York Islanders — with two of the wins coming on the road.

Daniel Sprong, filling in for the injured Alex Ovechkin (lower-body injury) on the top line, scored the game’s only goal just 89 seconds in, and goalie Vitek Vanecek (18 saves) plus a strong defense kept the Islanders at bay.

Pittsburgh (32-15-3, 67 points) fell out of first after a 3-1 loss to Boston on Tuesday. That ended a four-game winning streak for the Penguins. Jeff Carter scored the lone Penguins’ goal, which came in the third period after the Bruins were up 3-0, and Tristan Jarry finished with 28 saves.

The Islanders (29-15-5, 63 points) fell to four points behind the Penguins while Boston (28-14-6, 62 points) sits in fourth. Washington has one game in hand over the Penguins, and the two teams also will meet on Saturday in D.C.

The Capitals have stepped up their defense of late, giving up only three goals in the three games with New York, something that coach Peter Laviolette liked.

“When you’re not turning the puck over, you get an opportunity to play offense,” he said. “I thought we were able to stay in the offensive zone, and when you’re in the offensive zone you’re not playing defense. And obviously there are always saves that need to be made through the course of the game, and when we needed them, I thought Vitek was sharp.”

The big question now is when the Caps will get Ovechkin back. Washington isn’t saying much about the injury, which happened in the first game of the three-game set with the Islanders, late in the third period. As of now, Ovechkin is day-to-day, but Laviolette has said he’s not worried it’s a long-term thing, and Sprong has filled in nicely on the top line with three goals in those two games.

This will be the start of a four-game road trip for Pittsburgh, with the two games in Washington followed by two more in Philadelphia. But first, the Penguins need to bounce back from their loss to Boston, when they often struggled.

“They played hard,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “I don’t think we were at our best. We just weren’t sharp.”

They’ll need to be sharp against a Washington team that’s playing well at both ends of the ice. But the Penguins usually play well versus the Capitals, as these teams have had some epic battles over time.

The Penguins got some good news in Wednesday’s practice as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Evgeni Malkin completed a full practice and might return during this trip. Malkin last played on March 16 when he suffered a lower-body injury, and with the playoffs nearing, Pittsburgh wants him back.

Freddy Gaudreau also practiced Wednesday. He’s been out the past eight contests after suffering a lower-body injury. Brandon Tanev worked out with the taxi squad. He’s been out since earlier in April with an upper-body injury, but all three of these players are headed on the road trip.

–Field Level Media

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