When we last saw the Penguins and Capitals it was on the ice on Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day for the Winter Classic. At the time, both teams were playing well and the Capitals eventually came away the victors that evening with a 3-1 win. Times have changed in the time just over a month since then and when they meet up at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC, you might have trouble recognizing each team.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are out with injuries as is rookie Mark Letestu and the Pens have adopted a more hard-nosed brand of hockey, a style that’s won them five in a row heading into today’s game. The Penguins offense hasn’t been prolific but is instead proving to be timely while their team defense has stiffened up as the Penguins have had shutouts in two of their last five wins. Even though the Penguins are still rolling out there with Jordan Staal, these aren’t the same Penguins we’re accustomed to seeing with the high-flying talents of Crosby and Malkin.
Instead, the goals are coming from the likes of Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot, Matt Cooke, and rookie Dustin Jeffrey. If you had any of these guys penciled in at the start of the year to be offensive leaders for Pittsburgh, perhaps your time would be better spent picking out lottery numbers. The fact that the Penguins have rallied together without their star centers speaks loudly to the ability of coach Dan Bylsma to keep the team focused on the matter at hand and to the rest of the players for knowing when they need to step up the most. It may not be the pretty and highlight-filled hockey we’re accustomed to seeing from the Penguins, but it’s getting the job done as the Penguins are just behind Philadelphia for the top spot not just in the division but also in the Eastern Conference.
The boat the Capitals find themselves in is a different one. They haven’t been felled by significant injuries (Alex Semin’s absence has been tricky for them though) but instead are still searching for their way through doing things differently on defense as well as trying to find ways to get Alex Ovechkin out of his goal-scoring slump this year.
While the goals aren’t as numerous as they have been in the past, the points are still coming and the Caps dominating win over Tampa Bay the other night was one of their best games of the year. In that game, both Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom each tallied four points (Ovechkin with 1 goal, 3 assists; Backstrom with 2 goals and 2 assists). Ovechkin’s game has changed a bit as he’s not quite playing like the slap-shooting, sniping master from the outside and is turning into a bit of a bull on the ice.
Rather than lurking in the perimeter, Ovechkin is rushing the net more and making defenses and goalies alike uncomfortable with his large, fast presence. By making his own space on the ice, his ability to be held off the score sheet will become more difficult to do once again. By proxy, Backstrom’s numbers are improving as long as Ovechkin continues to do things his way rather than taking what opposing defenses give him. That subtle alteration to Ovechkin’s game will take a toll physically, but he’s also a guy that’s never shied away from anyone ever. Letting him loose like that could unleash the inner power forward in him.
That said, it’s not as if both Ovechkin and Backstrom aren’t producing. Ovechkin has 55 points this year (20 g, 35 a) while Backstrom has 50 (14 g, 36 a) but if they’re going to help out their team that is otherwise producing erratically, they need to be the guys that keep putting the puck in the net.
Living off the secondary production takes its toll after a while and in the case of the Capitals they don’t have any excuses for not getting premiere production from their stars. The Penguins, meanwhile, wish they could just have their guys back. The fact that these two teams are each in second place in their division and on the crash course to face each other in the playoffs makes almost too much sense.