Caps-Pens Must See TV No Matter Who Plays

By Scott Lowe
Today’s always-anticipated nationally televised matchup between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins is a huge game for both teams, but not for the normal reasons.

The fact that these two clubs are fierce rivals for once has very little to do with the importance of the contest. Nor does the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry have any bearing on what should be an intense Super Bowl Sunday matinee. None of that matters today. Instead it is an opportunity for both teams to send a message to the rest of the league.

For the Caps, who have struggled to a 3-7-6 mark recently (thanks Mike Vogel!) against teams currently holding down playoff spots while going 7-2-2 vs. the pretenders, today’s contest marks an opportunity to prove that they can give a full 60-minute playoff effort against high-caliber clubs in back-to-back outings – something that on a national stage could send notice that the ship is back on course once and for all.

It’s also an opportunity to further prove that the power play, which had been tops in the league over the two previous campaigns, is back on track. The unit is showing signs of life after a prolonged dormant period, with the Caps scoring power-play goals in successive games for the first time since Dec. 2. They are 2 for their last 7 with the extra man (28.6 percent), and while it’s just a small sampling, at least there is a sense the that the power-play unit is taking baby steps in the right direction. Washington’s record is ridiculous the past two years when it connects with the extra man.

With the team’s improvements along the blue line, rise to the top of the NHL in penalty killing and obvious commitment to a more defensive-minded game, it’s easy to argue that the only thing holding Washington back from returning to its perch as a Stanley Cup favorite is the power play.

“Last year we scored something like 90 power play goals,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said recently. “This year we had 20-something through 50 games. You add that goal per game back into our total and suddenly our 2.8 goals per game goes to 3.8 and we are right back where we were last year offensively.”

For the Penguins, who have miraculously risen to within one point of the Eastern Conference lead without having Crosby and his partner in crime Evgeny Malkin on the ice together for the past month, today is an opportunity to show the league their resilience.

It’s one thing for second- and third-tier players to pick up the slack when they know that top players are going to be on the shelf for a few days or weeks. It’s still another to know that you are going to be missing one of your main guns most likely for the remainder of the season and to still maintain that level of play. While reports have Crosby nearing a return to action, Malkin may be out for the remainder of the season with tears to both an MCL and ACL.

That’s a tough blow to a team that has worked so hard for 30 days in anticipation that both its stars would be on the ice for the better part of the stretch run. Today Pittsburgh has an opportunity to show the league that maybe its recent rise in the standings is not an aberration and that they are a legitimate contender with or without their superstars.

So, while NBC may not be able to play up the Ovie vs. Sid dramatics today, true hockey fans will tune in with a keen interest in watching these two highly touted clubs that appear to be a crossroads.

Who will make the statement, and will it propel them to a dominant final quarter of the season? In addition to the genuine bad blood between these two teams, the new sub-plots should make for interesting television on one of the best sports days of the year. Hey, it’s still Caps vs. Pens. Can’t-miss TV no matter who is in the lineup.