NHL on NBCSN: Can Capitals take advantage of depleted Penguins?

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NBCSN will kick off its post-holiday schedule with back-to-back rivalry games tonight. The first will feature the Penguins and Capitals in Pittsburgh and start at 7:30 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

Say what you will about the Penguins’ performance in their recent playoff runs — certainly there’s never a shortage of discussion on that subject — but they are an imposing team on paper and if nothing else, that has translated seamlessly in the regular season for years. They certainly have been an oppressive force against the Capitals, who haven’t beaten Pittsburgh since Jan. 11, 2012.

This is not a typical game for Pittsburgh though. The core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury should be on the ice, but a combination of injuries and the mumps have decimated the supporting cast. When the Penguins played against Tampa Bay on Tuesday, 22-year-old Bryan Rust spent his sixth career NHL game skating on a line with Crosby. Rob Klinkhammer, typically a bottom-six forward with 39 points in 137 career contests, was playing alongside Malkin. Their blueline featured three rookies that each made their NHL season debut this month in Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, and Scott Harrington.

What a time it is for blueliners Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to make their return to Pittsburgh, especially when mixed with the fact that the Capitals are on a 7-1-2 run.

“We all feel really confident right now and we’re starting to climb in the standings,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner told CSN Washington. “It’s been kind of a perfect storm with important games, the Winter Classic coming up. It’s all coming together.”

Even still, it would be wrong to count the Penguins out. Despite the adversity that they’ve faced recently, the squad has remained competitive. Tampa Bay took a 4-0 lead against Pittsburgh, but even with its depleted roster and against one of the top teams in the league, the Penguins rallied back to at least make it a 4-3 loss.

“It says an awful lot about the leadership in this group,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Guys on the bench were into the game. They were down 4-0 but were talking about getting that first goal or about getting a power-play opportunity. We had them on their heels in the third period. That’s a good building block for us.”

So while this is a good chance for the Capitals to end their skid against Pittsburgh, it still won’t be easy.