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Why tonight’s Penguins-Capitals showdown is huge for Washington

With the Winter Classic on its way next week in Pittsburgh, tonight’s Capitals-Penguins game in Washington takes on a bit more of the spotlight. It’s the first meeting of the year between the teams and while each team has been playing well so far this season, the Caps come into the game on a short, two-game win streak but still unsure of where they’re at as a team. The Penguins showed a lot lately rattling off a 12-game win streak before losing two in a row. They too enter this game on a two game win streak but if there’s a team that has something to prove tonight it’s Washington.

The Capitals losing streak caused a bit of a panic amongst fans and media alike and the worry that it caused the Capitals coaches and players showed on their faces during both episodes of HBOs 24/7 series (our review of each episode are here and here). While winning over Ottawa seemed to take the monkey off the Caps backs, beating the Senators and Devils (who fired their coach today following that loss) in back to back games doesn’t look very impressive.

Tonight, the Capitals have a chance to show that their losing streak and bad habits are, indeed, all behind them. Playing against the Penguins gives them their first opportunity in a while to show that they’re capable of playing a great game against a great team. They played a tough game against Boston that saw them get down 3-0 in the first period and after Mike Knuble read the riot act to his teammates between periods, the Caps snapped out of their haze and stormed back to get within a goal of Boston before losing. They lost but went down fighting. A similar kind of start against Pittsburgh tonight will take a rabid Verizon Center crowd out of the game and once again test the mental mettle of what, thanks to 24/7, seems to be a very hot and cold psychological team in Washington.

We understand that it’s just one game, but for the Capitals this one game offers them an opportunity. An opportunity to rally around each other and to rally around coach Bruce Boudreau. A poor showing tonight would reflect badly upon Boudreau and would really drive up the talk about whether or not Boudreau should be the guy in charge of things in D.C. Tonight’s game gives Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin the opportunity to snap out of their offensive funk and take the spotlight away from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for a night.

The Penguins are the media darlings right now but if the Capitals want to grab the spotlight for themselves and show that they too are serious contenders this season, taking care of business in any way against Pittsburgh would send the appropriate message. The residual effect it would have on the Winter Classic and every other meeting between the teams this year would turn each game into its own version of must-see TV and that’s just the way the NHL would like it to be. Now it’s up to the Capitals to figure out if they want it as bad as they say they do.

NHL on NBCSN: Ovechkin will look to stay out of the box against Bruins

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals collides with Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on October 21, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Bruins defeated the Capitals 4-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Washington Capitals host the Boston Bruins at 8:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

The Capitals put an end to their three-game losing streak by defeating the Buffalo Sabres in overtime on Monday night, but the biggest thing that came out of that game was coach Barry Trotz’s criticism of Alex Ovechkin.

“If it’s going on again, then there’s not going to be a lot of power play and playing time,” Trotz said, per the Washington Post. “If my message is not getting through, then the only thing I have is really ice time.”

On Tuesday, Ovechkin, who has five minor penalties in his last three games, had a chance to respond to his coach’s comments.

“Obviously, I have to be on the ice and not in the penalty box,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a good thing we talk. It’s my mistakes, and I just have to handle it and don’t take those penalties.”

Washington’s captain seems to have taken the criticism in stride, and we’ll see if Trotz’s message gets through to him right away.

Beyond the Ovechkin story line, the Capitals have surprisingly had a difficult time scoring goals.

With names like Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and company, you’d think that they’d be willing to fill the net with ease. Instead, Washington currently sits 23rd in goals for with 61.

They’ll be going head-to-head with the team that’s scored the same amount of goals, the Boston Bruins.

Boston’s inability to score with regularity was a little easier to predict than Washington’s, but they’re hoping that their latest 4-3 OT win over the Panthers will give them a spark.

“A few more guys are feeling [better] about their games, and know that we’re capable of putting a crooked number up like that. It bodes well moving forward,” said David Backes, per CSN New England. “But you can’t think that we’re going to relax after the effort that we put in. We’ve got to skill to those dirty areas and still get those second and third chances, and not take anything off during those opportunities. It’s got to go to the back of the net.”

One Bruin who isn’t struggling, is David Pastrnak. The 20-year-old has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2016-17 season.

He’s already scored 15 goals in 21 games, which puts him on pace to find the back of the net an incredible 55 times.

This should be a great one!

PHT Morning Skate: A beer named after Shayne Gostisbehere

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–Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere took the league by storm last year and obviously, people noticed. Starting on Friday, he’ll have a beer named after him. The Conshohocken Brewery is coming out with the “Ghost Bear Golden Ale”. (Bardown)

–No one expected rookie Brandon Carlo to make the Bruins out of camp, but he’s been terrific in his first NHL season. Thanks to his reach and wingspan, he’s been able to be effective in his own zone. “The one thing is that he’s so long and his stick is so long, it gives him time to recover because as a young kid in the league you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. He has the ability to come back and recover,” said teammate Torey Krug. (CSN New England)

–The Pittsburgh Penguins have an interesting dilemma with the upcoming expansion draft. First, they need to figure out if they’ll keep eight skaters and one goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. Once that’s settled, the team will need to figure what to do with Marc-Andre Fleury and a youngster like Derrick Pouliot. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun takes a closer look at their situation. (ESPN)

–Through 24 games, Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon has yet to pick up a single penalty minute. Some people might see that as a positive thing, but others might feel he’s too soft. So, which one is it? We know what MacKinnon thinks: “I’m being aggressive. I’m playing regularly, just not taking any minors. I think it’s a good thing. Usually I’m good for some roughing penalties and I’ve asked a couple guys to fight this year. I’m not trying to have zero penalty minutes,” said MacKinnon. (Denver Post)

–Injuries have hit the Tampa Bay Lightning pretty hard this year, but they have a bargaining chip named Ben Bishop. Is it time for them to trade him? Here are five reasons why they should.  (The Hockey News)

–The San Jose Sharks are having some fun on social media. Their latest hilarious video involves players guessing which teammate of theirs is depicted in a young fan’s drawing. It’s pretty funny:

Flames keep showing life, Stars stumble once again

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If you think the Dallas Stars are struggling because of defense more than anything else, then you’ll make sure to keep the video above “on file.”

There Kari Lehtonen was, helpless on a 2-on-0 rush for the Calgary Flames, which Johnny Gaudreau finished with calm and ease. For some, that goal is the symbol of the Stars’ season.

Either way, it was a painful goal in the Flames’ 2-1 win against the Stars. Calgary won despite Dallas firing 30 shots on goal versus the Flames’ 20.

One team climbing, the other stumbling

With that, the Flames are now on a four-game winning streak. Since falling to 5-10-1 on Nov. 12, the Flames have gone 9-3-1 in their last 13 games, pushing them to 14-13-2 overall. Gaudreau coming back is the icing on the cake after Chad Johnson really took charge of the Flames’ top job.

During a similar span, the Stars can’t seem to get it together. Dallas stood at 6-6-3 after beating the Oilers 3-2 on Nov. 11. They’re now 10-11-6, essentially standing in place as a .500 team.

Dallas can’t seem to get momentum going, a thought that might have left them envious of the team on the other end of the ice on Tuesday.

Canadiens are facing some turbulence (and mostly passing the test)

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 6: Patrik Berglund #21 of the St. Louis Blues checks Tomas Plekanec #14 of the Montreal Canadiens at the Scottrade Center on December 6, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/ Getty Images)
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The Montreal Canadiens aren’t in crisis mode, but as far as this so-far outstanding 2016-17 season goes, they are finally facing some adversity.

Alex Galchenyuk, one of their most promising young players, is out indefinitely. There are murmurs that captain Max Pacioretty isn’t getting along with head coach Michel Therrien.* Tuesday presented a body blow or two to boot.

For one thing, the Canadiens gave up a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 to the St. Louis Blues in overtime. Jaden Schwartz grabbed an assist and scored the game’s last two goals, including the OT-winner:

Losing to a contender like the Blues, especially while still grabbing a “charity point,” isn’t that big of a deal. A possible David Desharnais injury makes things a little dicey, however:

Really, though, it’s not all that bad for Montreal. They managed a 2-2-1 mark during a five-game road trip heavy on quality opponents.

Also: six of their next seven games come at home, where they’re 12-1-1. So things will look brighter soon enough.

Still, with some injuries and a big road trip to end 2016 and start 2017, there may be some moments where Montreal looks vulnerable.

Ultimately, fighting through stretches like these could very well benefit the Habs later on.

* – Ah, the old standby: “Player X isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Therrien.”

From the Blues’ side: