Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun preview tonight's showdown between the Penguins and Capitals, the first meeting between the rivals this season:
Burnside: Greetings, my friend. As the NHL's holiday break draws closer, there is no shortage of compelling storylines around the league. But all eyes will be on the Verizon Center in Washington on Thursday evening as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Washington Capitals for the first of four meetings this season. The Caps are getting a bit of a break as the Pens jetted in from Pittsburgh after pounding Florida 5-2 on Wednesday night. The Caps ended their eight-game winless slide with wins over two of the league's lesser clubs, Ottawa and New Jersey, so it's difficult to know whether they've really turned a corner or not.
But Alexander Semin is back and Michal Neuvirth looks to have taken over the top goaltending job in Washington, at least temporarily. And, oh yeah, that guy named Sidney Crosby scored again Wednesday to extend his points streak to 22 games. With the Winter Classic a little more than a week away, this should be a great scene-setter. What are you looking forward to in this matchup?
LeBrun: Yes, the big game tonight is Pens-Caps, further fueled by HBO's behind-the-scenes coverage of the two teams. And guess who finally watched an episode last night?
"I watched it last night for the first time," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau told me this morning. "I watched the second show. I knew it had a much better ending than the first show."
Good ol' Bruce. He certainly was able to keep his sense of humor throughout the team's eight-game slide. Now that's all a thing of the past with Washington winning two in a row and raring to go tonight.
Burnside: I am really curious to see how the Caps fare tonight. We know the Pens are a resilient bunch. They dropped two in a row after their 12-game winning streak came to a close against Philadelphia and then promptly beat Phoenix and Florida.
The Caps haven't beaten a quality opponent in a long time and Alex Ovechkin, while still driving the net and making things happen, has just two goals in his past 18 games and none in his past seven. Semin, who had a lower-body injury or the flu or both, needs to pick up his previously hot pace, as well.
Although GM George McPhee has steadfastly insisted he likes his two young goaltenders, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, this is another good test. I assume Neuvirth will get the call, but neither was very good during the Caps' recent swoon. They need to provide more quality starts or there will be more pressure on McPhee to bring in a veteran netminder at the trade deadline. No better test than against the game's greatest player right now.
LeBrun: Scotty, the Caps can breathe now. By their reaction in the HBO show, you could see how ecstatic they were to end the skid in Ottawa last Sunday. That was an overjoyed dressing room.
"I think they're glad it's over, you could see that in their eyes after the game," Boudreau told me this morning. "For whatever reason, we've had a lot of scrutiny because we went 0-6-2. Our players were really under scrutiny [with the HBO cameras] and, really, they're not used to being under scrutiny like that. It's not like Toronto or Montreal, but we got through it. Tonight's game could really be a great send-off before Christmas."
And while we in the media often get blamed for making more of this rivalry than it really is, you know like I do the players really do care about it. It's genuine.
"I think Pittsburgh gets hyped up for us, too, they may be the one team that doesn't want to admit it, though," said Boudreau. "But I think it's human nature to get excited. The players are fans, as well. Our crowd will really be into it. The Pittsburgh players will really be into it. The way HBO is setting it up, there may be even more interest.''
Burnside: This is an important game on a number of different levels. The Caps are trying to hold off Tampa and Atlanta at the top of the Southeast Division after running away with the divisional race the past few years. The Penguins are in a battle with Philadelphia for top spot in the Atlantic and likely the top seed in the Eastern Conference when the dust settles in April.
But this is also about the two most prominent players in the game, Crosby and Ovechkin, and the different paths their careers and their teams have taken to this point. It's not a playoff series, it's not even an outdoor game, but it should provide for some interesting drama. OK, I'll put you on the spot: A prediction for tonight? Me, I say the Caps edge the Pens 4-3 in overtime.
LeBrun: Crosby's 11-point lead atop the NHL scoring race is the biggest since teammate Evgeni Malkin also had an 11-point lead for several days in March 2009, according to Elias Sports. He continues to roll. Here's a prediction for you: Ovechkin and Crosby get two goals apiece tonight. Take that to the bank.
By the way, I can't finish this blog without mentioning my favorite moment in the HBO episode 2 last night: Craig Adams' 3-year-old son naming all the Penguins players from the pictures on the wall at the rink and then saying "Craig'' when he got to Adams, prompting Adams to suggest he call him "Daddy.'' Love that.
Burnside and LeBrun also weigh in on Pavel Datsyuk's injury:
Burnside: The Detroit Red Wings beat Western Conference rivals the Vancouver Canucks in overtime Wednesday night but lost Hart Trophy hopeful Pavel Datsyuk to a broken hand. Tough for the Wings, but if there's a team that can swallow that kind of loss, it is Detroit.
LeBrun: Scotty, Datsyuk is out four weeks and that's as big as it gets, a Hart Trophy candidate this season and a player that does it all for the Wings. Yes, they've got the depth and veteran experience to overcome, but let's not sugarcoat it -- you just don't replace his minutes.
"It's a big loss. He's one of the premier forwards in the NHL and he was playing real well," Wings GM Ken Holland told me this morning. "Not one player can replace him, but as a group, we need everyone to chip in and step up in their own way. I thought last night in the third period was a good example. Henrik Zetterberg was huge and other players also dug deep for us."
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock did provide some good news this morning, telling me that doctors told Datsyuk he can still train while he's out of the lineup, so he won't fall out of shape over the next four weeks.
Hopefully the Wings can avoid further injuries. They don't want to duplicate last season, when nearly half the roster went down and they spent most of the season in survival mode, which wore them down come playoff time.