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.”
Here’s a look at projected lineups for both teams:
Injured: Brooks Orpik (lower body)
Injured: Kris Letang (upper body)
Scratches: Adam Clendening
MORE CAPITALS: Ovechkin, Caps weigh in on Pens coaching change