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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals vs. Penguins

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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals vs. Penguins

PITTSBURGH -- The Capitals (20-6-2, 42 points) conclude a three-game road trip tonight in Pittsburgh when they take on the Penguins (15-10-3, 33 points) at Consol Energy Center (6:30 p.m. pregame, CSN). Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:

How the Caps got here: The Caps are 8-1-1 in their last nine games to climb into first place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the New York Islanders, who are 8-0-2 in their last 10. The Caps split the first two games of their three-game road trip, losing 4-1 in Sunrise and winning 2-1 in Tampa, but no one in the locker room is thrilled with how they’re playing.

“Sometimes you just don’t have that jump in your legs,” said Ovechkin, who scored the lone goal against the Panthers. “We have to find a way to play our game and get success.”

How the Pens got here: The Penguins fired coach Mike Johnston on Saturday after going 2-2-3 in their last seven games. Despite the arrival of Phil Kessel, the Caps have struggled offensively this season, ranking 26th in goals and 27th on the power play. New coach Mike Sullivan said he’ll keep the Pens’ lines and power play units intact for now.  

Pens vs. Caps: The Penguins have won 10 of their last 13 meetings with the Caps, including a 3-1 victory at Verizon Center on Oct. 28. The Caps have won their last two meetings in Pittsburgh.

Ovi vs. Sid: This is the 35th meeting between Alex Ovechkin, who is second on the Caps with 25 points (14 goals, 11 assists) and Sidney Crosby, who is second on the Penguins with 19 points (six goal, 19 assists). In the previous 34 matchups the Penguins are 22-10-2. Crosby has 51 points (18 goals, 33 assists) in those 34 games, while Ovechkin has 38 points (22 goals, 16 assists). That’s 89 points in 34 games.

Dinners guests to enemies: Penguins right wing Eric Fehr had a few former teammates at his house for dinner on Sunday night but he says once the puck drops tonight it will be all business.

“It’s a big game for us,” he said. “With the new coaching staff and everything that’s gone down the last couple weeks, it’s all business for our team. We’ve got to find a way to get a win.”

In 18 games since returning from reverse Tommy John surgery, Fehr has three goals and two assists and is a plus-3 in his role as a bottom six forward. Caps center Jay Beagle was one of Fehr’s dinner guests on Sunday.

“He likes it a lot here,” Beagle said. “He’s doing really well. It’s always good to see him. He’s a good friend of mine and you miss a guy like that. But he knows he’s coming after us and we’re coming after him. It’s an old cliché that there’s no friends on the ice but it’s actually true. It’s all business and it’s what we get paid to do.”

Overrated: Sullivan minced no words when asked about his first morning skate as Pens coach: “For me, they could be the most overrated things in hockey,” he said. “They’ve become a fabric of the culture. A lot of players have superstitions and want to touch the puck.”

Special teams: The Penguins’ penalty kill ranks fifth in the NHL and will be asked to stopped the Caps’ third-ranked unit, which has received goals from nine different players.

“They are playing a very difficult system to defend,” Pens defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “You can’t take penalties against them because they have an incredibly dangerous power play that is no longer just Ovechkin.

“Their first unit has scored 13 goals, their second unit has scored eight and Ovechkin only has four power play goals. So they’re beating teams in many different ways on the power play.

“Against that top line you really need to be dialed in every second. As soon as you get caught leaning the wrong way they can make you pay.”

RELATED: Crosby has 'something to prove' to new coach

Here’s a look at projected lineups for both teams:

CAPITALS

Forward lines

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams

Jason Chimera – Jay Beagle – Stanislav Galiev

Andre Burakovsky – Brooks Laich – Tom Wilson

Defense pairs

Nate Schmidt – John Carlson

Karl Alzner – Matt Niskanen

Dmitry Orlov – Taylor Chorney

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby (starter) - Philipp Grubauer

Injured: Brooks Orpik (lower body)

Scratches: Chris BrownMichael LattaChandler StephensonAaron Ness

PENGUINS

Forward lines

Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Beau Bennett

David Perron – Evgeni Malkin – Phil Kessel

Eric Fehr – Nick Bonino – Patric Hornqvist

Sergei Plotnikov – Matt Cullen – Daniel Sprong

Defense pairs

David Warsofsky – Olli Maatta

Brian Dumoulin – Ben Lovejoy

Rob Scuderi – Ian Cole

Goaltenders

Marc-Andre Fleury (starter) - Jeff Zatkoff

Injured: Kris Letang (upper body)

Scratches: Adam Clendening

MORE CAPITALS: Ovechkin, Caps weigh in on Pens coaching change

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Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

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USA TODAY Sports

Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

After two games, it looks like Michal Kempny is already moving up in the lineup.

At Sunday’s practice, Kempny played on the team's second defensive pairing, lining up on the left of John Carlson. Previously, the Czech defenseman had been playing on the right of Brooks Orpik. The move to the left allows him to play on his natural side as he is a left-handed shot.

Here are the pairs from Sunday’s practice:

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos
Jakub Jerabek – Madison Bowey

Acquired on Monday from the Chicago Blackhawks, Kempny has played in two games for the Capitals and has received glowing reviews thus far.

“He's a really good pro, that's what sticks out,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He takes care of himself, he works at his game off the ice and with the guys, he has fit in very well.”

RELATED: THE TRADE TO WASHINGTON OFFERS JERABEK THE CHANCE HE NEVER SEEMED TO GET IN MONTREAL

“I've gotten to play a little bit with [Kempny] the last couple games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think he's a guy that, he moves pretty well and he moves the puck pretty well and likes to keep things pretty simple. He's very consistent and predictable so he's very easy to play with.”

When the Capitals first acquired Kempny, it seemed like the best fit for him would be alongside Carlson. It’s a natural fit with Kempny being a left-shot and Carlson a righty. It also bumps down Christian Djoos to a third-pair role which is preferable to having a rookie in the top-four come the playoffs.

Should Kempny play well with Carlson, that would likely solidify Washington’s top two pairs. The Orlov-Niskanen pair was not going to be changed and Carlson was going to be on the second pair. The only question was who would ultimately play with him in the postseason?

The third pair, however, remains a work in progress.

The Caps will have to wait at least another day for the debut of their second recent acquisition as Jakub Jerabek cannot yet play due to visa issues and will miss Monday's game, reports Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Considering the issues Washington has had on defense, they would not have brought in another defenseman just to be a healthy scratch. He will get his shot to earn a spot in the lineup.

With two new defensemen in tow, obviously the team will need to experiment over the next few days and weeks to find the right combinations.

“We're going to have to probably spend at least the next 10 to 12 games doing that and then we'll have to sort of settle in,” Trotz said. “With eight defenseman, you sort of want to see which guys you’re going to play and who to play as partners and sort of a little bit of ranking. If someone goes down, who's filling that extra role?”

MORE CAPITALS: WHY THERE'S NO REASON FOR CAPS FANS TO WORRY

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

The Caps could not shake Buffalo for two periods, but a dominant finish on Saturday helped them pull away for a 5-1 win. Here's how they finally put away the Sabres.

A quick start

Strong starts go a long way towards helping a team in the middle of a slump. It's a confidence boost for a group in desperate need of one and the Caps got that boost on Saturday from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov used his wheels to zip in behind the defense and score just 50 seconds into the game. Washington led 1-0 at the end of the first, just the second time in 19 games they have held a lead after the opening 20 minutes.

RELATED: SEE THE 3 STARS FROM CAPS-SABRES HERE

Andre Burakovsky snapping a second period slump

It looked in the second period like the Caps were caught trying to protect the lead again, but Andre Burakovsky woke the team back up with his incredible highlight end-to-end goal. It really looked like Buffalo was going to tie the game at one, but instead, Burakovsky extended the lead to two. Going end to end the way he did shows a player who is starting to play with some confidence, something Burakovsky has lacked for much of the season.

Ovechkin's two-goal third period

Buffalo would not go away. Sam Reinhart got the Sabres on the board just 14 seconds into the third period and suddenly the Caps found themselves in a one-goal game again. But Ovechkin ended any hopes for the comeback as he struck in the top corner of the net on the power play from the office. He would later add a deflection goal to extend the lead to 5-1, giving a scuffling Washington team the dominant win they so sorely needed.