Category archive: Washington Capitals

The regular-season finale for the NHL's best rivalry takes place tonight in what is hopefully just the appetizer and not the dessert this season.

Please, please, give us more of this when it really counts. In the meantime, we'll settle for the fourth and final regular-season meeting between NHL-leading Washington and reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh.

"The Washington games always seem to bring out the best in both teams," Penguins GM Ray Shero told on Monday evening. "There's a lot more intensity, emotion and urgency in everyone's game. You have to be real good against a team like Washington just to have a chance to win."

The Penguins, despite solid efforts in their past two encounters against the Caps, are looking to break that ugly goose egg in the win column against their rivals.

"We're definitely looking for that," Penguins veteran winger Bill Guerin told on Monday night. "They've played well against us this year. The last two games have been good games. One thing about them is that I think they bring out the best in us and we do the same for them."

The Caps needed overtime and then a shootout to win the past two games against Pittsburgh; but, nevertheless, it still goes in the books as a perfect 3-0-0 record for Washington, which can sweep the season series over their former Patrick Division rivals for the first time in team history (Caps senior PR man Nate Ewell tells me their previous best was 6-0-1 in 1984-85).

Beating Pittsburgh in the regular season is nothing new of late. Since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the Caps' bench during the 2007-08 season, Washington has a 7-1-2 record against Pittsburgh. Of course, the Pens got it done when it mattered in last spring's memorable seven-game series, which spurred Pittsburgh on to its Cup triumph. In other words, what happens in the regular season may not necessarily translate in the playoffs, even if the Pens are winless in nine games this season against New Jersey and Washington combined.

"It's not really on my radar right now because we're not playing any of these two teams in the first round," said Shero, referring to the 0-7-2 mark against the Devils/Caps this season. "The playoffs will be the start of a new season for 16 teams. What's done or what you think you might do doesn't mean a darn thing. ... Some teams will be shocked, some team will be happy, some will be sad. That's the new season."

But first is the rest of the regular season. The Caps are in Pittsburgh with the Presidents' Trophy already in tow, an offensive machine running away with the goals lead in the NHL and making it look like it's the 1980s all over again. They've got plenty of respect in the Penguins' dressing room.

"I think they're a deeper team this year," said Guerin. "They're so powerful offensively. It's unbelievable. I haven't seen too many teams like that."

There's more than pride on the line tonight for Pittsburgh. The Pens are tied for the Atlantic Division lead with New Jersey (amazingly enough despite the 0-6-0 mark against the Devils) and want to grab that divisional title in order to place second or third in the conference, not to mention avoid a possible matchup with the Caps in the second round.

"It's important to us," said Guerin. "You want to solidify the highest seed possible in your conference, and for us that's the second seed, and for that we have to win our division. That's definitely a goal of ours.''

Whether it's the division battle with New Jersey or the mental battle with Washington, Pittsburgh clearly needs this one tonight. It could make it that much sweeter for the Caps if they make it a perfect 4-0-0.

Usually unflappable Marc-Andre Fleury swung his stick at his right post in disgust after giving up the shootout winner to Mike Knuble on Wednesday night, an act of frustration that might as well have been on behalf of his entire team.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are winless in nine games this season versus the two Eastern Conference teams they have to worry about most come playoff time, the New Jersey Devils (0-6-0) and Washington Capitals (0-1-2).

The reigning Cup champions have one such game left in the regular season, an April 6 meeting against the Caps in Pittsburgh, to restore some measure of confidence. I know they have the Cup rings from nine months ago, but you can't tell me having lost all 10 games to Washington and New Jersey could not play on their minds entering the playoffs. It will. So circle April 6 on your calendars, Pens fans; your team badly needs a victory that night.

To be fair, the Pens were missing defenseman Sergei Gonchar and star center Evgeni Malkin on Wednesday and still managed to outshoot the Caps 42-32, but they fell short yet again.

Looking at the big picture, Wednesday night was another reminder of why we want these two teams to meet again in the playoffs, whether it's in the second round or the third.

Washington's 4-3 shootout win was another entertaining affair. The Pens scored late to tie it on Jordan Staal's wicked wrister, then the game's two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, traded back-to-back shootout beauties before Knuble eventually decided it, to the delight of a frenzied Verizon Center crowd. The shootout, with Washington erasing a 2-0 deficit, was superb.

On a night when the NHL and the NHL Players' Association released more statements to update their bizarre power play over a new head-shot rule (not to mention the continued concern in Phoenix over the off-ice future of the Coyotes), the NHL once again doled out its hottest commodity, one that fans and media cannot get enough of. Yes, I can take more Pens-Caps this spring, no question.

All of which is why I'm pretty sure you'll hear an official announcement from the NHL at some point soon that next season's Winter Classic on Jan. 1 will feature these two teams. It's a no-brainer. It's the NHL's best rivalry right now with the game's two biggest stars.

No matter how many people fill the message boards complaining that Crosby and Ovechkin have reached the saturation point in their exposure, the reality is completely the opposite.

There's plenty more the league can do with these two captains and these two teams, and it certainly hopes to do just that.

Round 3 of the NHL's glitziest rivalry comes Wednesday night in Washington with the NHL-leading Capitals frothing at the mouth as they host the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

OK, I made up the part about the Caps frothing at the mouth. But the chance to go up 3-0-0 in the season series against the rival Penguins is an attractive possibility for the run-and-gun Caps. There's no love lost for the team that knocked Washington out of the playoffs last season in a series that brought this rivalry to new heights.

Try being Mike Knuble. He got the double whammy. First, Sidney Crosby's team knocked him out of the playoffs two seasons in a row when he was still with the Philadelphia Flyers. Now, he's with the team whose Cup hopes were crushed by the Pens last spring. Forgive Knuble for having Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh on the mind!

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Geoff Burke/US PresswireJose Theodore has posted a 16-0-2 record in his past 18 games for the Capitals.

"Pittsburgh just seems to get the upper hand on everybody," Knuble told on Tuesday after practice. "Even from my time in Philly, they seemed to get the upper hand on us then and everybody last year. They're the ones everybody wants to be like. That probably means there's a bit of a bull's-eye on them."

It seems that way, although the defending Cup champs haven't had an easy time with the two other chief contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Pens are winless in eight games versus the Caps (0-1-1) and New Jersey Devils (0-6-0).

Knuble, meanwhile, has switched from one heated rivalry to another.

"I think there's a Bermuda Triangle between Philly, Washington and Pittsburgh," said Knuble, who scored the overtime winner Feb. 7 against Pittsburgh. "They're all pretty competitive games, but obviously with [Crosby and Alex Ovechkin] you've got two big headliners. They get a lot of the attention, so everybody wants to see a good game out of those guys, some excitement, see them get a couple goals apiece. But they're pretty good games. I'm sure we're all going to see each other in the playoffs."

Ah, yes … the playoffs. There's nothing else the Caps can possibly achieve in the regular season that would impress anyone anymore. From wire to wire, they've been the most impressive team in the NHL this season, scoring goals like it's 1984 and doing it with style.

But that will mean nothing three months from now unless they're in the Stanley Cup finals. Maybe that's a little harsh, but it's the truth. The proof will be in the playoffs for the Caps. It doesn't matter whether they beat the Penguins on Wednesday night. Can they do it when it really counts?

Caps GM George McPhee has been a busy man since that Game 7 loss to the Pens in the second round last season. Knuble and fellow veteran forward Brendan Morrison were added in the offseason. Other veterans followed during the season via trades: forwards Jason Chimera, Scott Walker and Eric Belanger as well as defenseman Joe Corvo.

Knuble was an especially inspired addition, a cerebral and character player who just gets the job done; a "glue" guy, if you will.

"It's been a pretty good fit, and obviously we've won a ton of games and that makes things easier," said Knuble, fourth on the Caps with 25 goals in 60 games. "Personally, I got off to a bit of a slow start and [coach] Bruce [Boudreau] was mixing things up and then I missed a dozen games with a broken finger. Next thing you know, it's around Christmas and you felt like you haven't really started your season yet.

"But from the absolute first game of the season, the team has been playing well and just winning a ton of games. So for me, it was just a matter of time and getting comfortable. There were a lot of good pieces and good players here already. I was just trying to fit in."

This team is still about Ovechkin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom, but now the Capitals have some veterans to help ease the burden.

"Leaving Philadelphia last summer, you knew what this team had," said Knuble, who signed a two-year, $5.6 million deal. "You knew it was a young group that has got a lot of playoff experience the last two years, lost to Philly in seven games [in 2008] and made a good run last year. George has done a good job of getting his core group and letting them mature."

The Achilles' heel of this incredibly talented Caps team, real or perceived, has always been goaltending. To be fair, that conclusion wasn't too far off halfway through the season when the team still wasn't sure who would be their No. 1 goalie, Semyon Varlamov or Jose Theodore. But the second half has produced a victor: veteran Theodore, who has somewhat quietly posted a 16-0-2 record in his past 18 games while allowing more than three goals in only three of those starts.

At some point, you have to say, what else can the former Hart and Vezina trophy winner do to convince his critics?

"If he perceives there's a lack of respect, that could be a great motivator for Jose," Knuble said. "But it's not on our goalies, Varlamov or Jose. We've got the numbers; maybe people don't like the way we've achieved those numbers. You figure Theo is 16-0-2 and people still have a problem with it. I guess people don't like the way we've achieved it sometimes. But Theo has played very well. He deserves to have a record like that."

No point arguing about it. The playoffs will settle the matter. Not just for Theodore but for all the Caps.

Bring it on.

Before all was said and done Thursday, there were two other teams in the running with New Jersey for Ilya Kovalchuk: the St. Louis Blues and the Philadelphia Flyers. Is it just me, or isn't it surprising the Blues were in it? Jeremy Rutherford had the details in Friday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"We were in on it, but they were asking too much," Blues president John Davidson told on Saturday. "[Thrashers GM] Donnie [Waddell] was driving a real tough bargain."

The Blues are no guarantee to make the playoffs this season, so on the surface, it's kind of surprising to see them go after such a high-profile rental. But the hope was if the Blues got him, he would fall in love with the city like so many other players have over the years and they'd be able to sign him to an extension.

"We have 55 NHL alumni in this city," said Davidson. "Players love it here."

But the price was too high. I'm told the Thrashers wanted T.J. Oshie as part of their package.

The Flyers were in it almost to the end, and that's no surprise at all. They were rumored to be in it all along. There's a lot of pressure on the Flyers to go for it this season; after all, they gave up two first-round picks in the trade that brought in star blueliner Chris Pronger last June, so there's no point turning back now.

But in the end, the Flyers decided Atlanta's price was too high and the Devils were victorious. I believe the Thrashers wanted either rookie forward James van Riemsdyk or impressive young forward Claude Giroux as part of the return package. In both cases, the Flyers balked.

The interesting part? The Flyers have come oh-so-close on a major rental pickup for the second straight year. Last March at the trade deadline, the Flyers came within inches of picking up Jay Bouwmeester before the Florida Panthers decided to keep him through the end of the season. But it went right down to the wire.

One last note on the Kovalchuk saga: Devils GM Lou Lamoriello made a classy move Thursday night, jumping on a private plane and flying to Washington to personally pick up his newly acquired star, along with his agent Jay Grossman and defenseman Anssi Salmela, and bring them back to New Jersey.

Whitney and Wallin updates
If all had gone according to plan, Ray Whitney would have been a Los Angeles King by now and Niclas Wallin would be headed to San Jose.

Instead, they're both still in Carolina. Sources told me on Saturday that both trades were scuttled, as each player used their respective no-trade clauses to try to extract contract extensions from their suitors. (Both players are set to become unrestricted free agents July 1.)

Hey, it's totally within their rights to exercise the no-trade clauses, but you can imagine the frustration of Canes GM Jim Rutherford, who would have had a few assets in his hands had those deals gone through.

So, now what? Let's focus on Whitney, the most valuable rental forward left on the NHL trade market now that Kovalchuk has been moved. Whitney, via his agent J.P. Barry, tried to extract a three-year contract extension from the Kings last week. Given his age (37), the Kings had reservations. Officially, Barry and Kings GM Dean Lombardi haven't spoken since last weekend, although Lombardi ran into Barry's partner at CAA Sports, Pat Brisson, at Thursday night's Ducks-Kings game and I'm told the Whitney conversation was picked up again. Maybe a two-year extension will cut it down the middle?

Whitney has not tailed off in his late 30s; he remains a consistent point producer. My suspicion here is Whitney would likely rather stay somewhere closer to the East. He's got three kids at home, so who can blame the guy? Pittsburgh and Philadelphia certainly fit the bill. The Penguins are in need of a winger. I'm sure Whitney would love a chance to play with Sidney Crosby. But the Pens likely can't afford Whitney's $3.55 million salary under their cap until the last minute, the March 3 trade deadline.

The Flyers? Well, they struck out on Kovalchuk. And it just so happens Flyers coach Peter Laviolette knows very well what Whitney brings to the table from their days together in Carolina.

But if Rutherford doesn't get the deal he wants because he believes his hands were tied, he may just not deal Whitney.

Panthers scuttlebutt
At this point, the Florida Panthers really don't know whether they are buyers or sellers given their bubble position in the playoff race. The remaining games before the Olympics will have a big bearing on that. If they fall back in the race, UFAs-to-be Dennis Seidenberg and Jordan Leopold could both be made available as rentals.

But win or lose over the next week heading into Friday's Olympic roster freeze (the trade deadline before the March 3 deadline), I'm told two players are available from the Panthers no matter the circumstances: forwards Rostislav Olesz and Kamil Kreps. Olesz, who has played well at times this season, has four more years on his deal at a $3.125 million cap hit, while Kreps is set to become a restricted free agent July 1.

I'm told star goalie Tomas Vokoun, who has one year left on his deal at $6.3 million, will not be made available before March 3 regardless of where the Panthers are in the standings. That's a situation the team will revisit come June.

Sid versus Ovi, Part II
Weather permitting, the NHL's best rivalry resumes Sunday afternoon in Washington, where the Capitals host the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A massive snowstorm blanketed the D.C. area Saturday and there was concern about the Penguins getting from Montreal to Washington on Saturday evening after their afternoon game with the Canadiens. The latest itinerary: Pittsburgh was set to fly into Newark, N.J., and then take a four-hour bus ride to D.C.

Assuming there are no other weather delays, let's focus on the second game of the season between the rivals (the Caps won the first meeting 6-3 on Jan. 21). It's a rivalry players and coaches and, yes, GMs, from both teams have genuinely bought into.

"I think so," said Shero. "Obviously, there's Sid and Ovechkin, that's a great rivalry on its own, and I think there's more hype now because we played last year in a seven-game playoff series. Now, Washington has won 13 games in a row and they're probably the best team in the league. So it should be an exciting game."

What makes this rivalry so compelling is the way both franchises have mirrored each other on so many levels, from bottom-feeders to the drafting of great young players to the gradual ascension up the NHL ladder. The Penguins got over the hump first with a trip to the Cup finals in 2008 and a Stanley Cup title in 2009. This season, the Caps seem to have responded to that challenge, putting together the most impressive season in the Eastern Conference and arguably the entire NHL.

"The Caps are an exciting team to watch," said Shero. "They seem to have taken a next step. It makes the rivalry even better between Pittsburgh and Washington and makes for great games. It's all good."

It's also why a league source reiterated Saturday that the Caps-Pens matchup remains the favorite at this point for next season's Winter Classic, although no final decision has been made.

Gretzky's trip
Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier didn't just drop the puck last weekend in Minsk, Belarus, for the KHL All-Star Game. The two legends also donned the old skates, too. Gretzky and Messier played in a pick-up game with the president of Belarus and some former pro players.

"Yeah, that was neat," Gretzky told this week. "We had a great time. They just built a brand-new rink there in Minsk. It's beautiful. The people of Belarus really treated us like royalty. It was truly an honor to be a guest of the president."

Gretzky also took the time to have breakfast with KHL president Alexander Medvedev.

"He came to my fantasy camp a few years ago, so I had already met him," said Gretzky. "He's an interesting guy. We talked about the growth of the KHL to date and where he sees it going in the future."

The Great One, as most people know, has family roots in Belarus. His ancestors moved from there to Canada. Gretzky was approached by a person in Minsk who had researched the Gretzky family tree. Turns out Gretzky has relatives who live 250 kilometers from Minsk. Gretzky met a woman who was a cousin, his grandfather's niece.

"That was really something," said Gretzky. "My father was so happy to hear that I met some of our relatives. That by itself was worth the trip."

Gretzky also had dinner with former NHL stars Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Yashin and Sergei Zubov, while also taking the time to catch up with Russian greats Slava Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak.

Quite the trip!

Red Wings
Needing desperately to clear salary cap space, the Red Wings dealt Ville Leino to the Flyers in exchange for defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and a fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft on Saturday.

But the Wings then immediately put Tollefsen on NHL waivers. If he clears Monday at noon ET, I suspect he'll be sent to the AHL. The sole purpose of the move was to shed Leino's $800,000 cap hit in order to pave the way for the return of star winger Johan Franzen, who has been out four months with a knee injury.

Even with the move, the Wings will still be right up against the cap once Franzen returns. So, if and when defenseman Andreas Lilja is ready to return to the Wings' lineup, Holland will have to shed more salary. Lilja has been out nearly a calendar year with a concussion, but he's playing a couple of games with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins.

Detroit's cap issues mean it'll make things more interesting for the Wings in terms of the March 3 trade deadline. The Wings won't have much room to add.

Avs and Svatos
A source told me Saturday that Colorado is shopping around winger Marek Svatos, an unrestricted free agent July 1. His cap hit is $2.05 million. He only has six goals this season, but he's a former 32-goal scorer. He could be a nice consolation prize for teams who lose out on Whitney.

Flyers and Emery
As I reported earlier this season, the Flyers are hoping to reach an extension with goalie Ray Emery before the end of the regular season. Because Emery signed a one-year deal this past summer, the team wasn't allowed to approach his agent until January. That happened in Calgary last week, when Flyers GM Paul Holmgren and Emery's agent, J.P. Barry, chatted briefly and only agreed they would commence preliminary talks after the Olympics. Emery is earning $1.5 million this season, so he'd be looking for a raise.

A final note
I want to send out my heartfelt condolences to Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and his family. I've been a parent now for 13 months, and I could not even imagine dealing with the shattering news of losing one's child. We get so caught up in this business with wins and losses and trades and rumors, we often lose sight of what really matters.

I feel absolutely horrible about Friday's tragic death of Brendan Burke. Let's all hope the Burke family can find the strength to get through this.

Thank goodness you can pause live TV. It's the kind of technological advancement that saves you from missing three goals while you go fix yourself a sandwich during a Washington Capitals game.

The Caps are filling the net like nobody's business, obviously a big reason they're riding a franchise-record 11-game winning streak into tonight's tilt at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.

More than ever, the Caps are a thrill a minute. And the architect of the team says that was the plan.

"Well, it just seemed that this was the way the league was going coming out of the lockout, that it wanted a more entertaining game and wanted more scoring," Caps GM George McPhee told on Wednesday. "It seemed that if you were trying to design your team that way, there would be some benefits."

This team makes me reminisce a bit about Mario Lemieux's Penguins teams of the early 1990s or Wayne Gretzky's offensive machines in Edmonton during the 1980s.

The Caps lead the league with an average of 3.82 goals per game, while second-place San Jose is way back at 3.29. Washington is on pace to score 313 goals, which would be the most in the NHL in 14 years. In 1995-96, something was in the water because Super Mario and the Pens led the league with a whopping 362 goals, followed by Joe Sakic's Avalanche at 326 and Steve Yzerman's Red Wings at 325. What a season.

Of course, the Caps are in no danger of coming even close to Gretzky's boys. The Oilers of the '80s rewrote the NHL record book with a ridiculous 446 goals in 1983-84, an average of 5.575 goals per game. Those Oilers teams scored more than 400 goals in a season five times, benchmarks that have never been matched.

Still, in today's era, what the Caps are doing is impressive.

"You know what, they're an exciting team," Gretzky told on Wednesday.

The Great One cited Caps coach Bruce Boudreau and his history as a prolific junior player with the Toronto Marlies (Boudreau posted 165 points in 69 games in 1974-75).

"I think it goes back to when he played for George Armstrong with the Toronto Marlies," Gretzky said. "He loves that transition hockey, head-manning the puck and going to the net. It's very similar to the way the Marlies played in 1974-75 when they won the Memorial Cup. Obviously, the players are bigger and stronger these days, and the goaltenders are probably a little more athletic and they have bigger equipment, so it's tougher to score. But the actual style of play, transition and head-manning the puck is similar."

And just like Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey leading the way offensively on those Oilers teams, the Caps have their own version.

"Their top guys, Ovechkin, Semin and Green, play a hard-tempo game every night," said Gretzky. "They lead by example and pull the rest of the guys with them."

We knew a long time ago the Caps could score goals. We knew it before they took to the ice last spring for the playoffs. But the key for Washington will be to learn how to adapt its game come playoff time.

"It's a learning process," said Gretzky. "We got all the way to the Cup finals with that style. And I think the first year we lost to the Islanders (1982-83), we understood that as good as we were offensively, that ultimately we were going to have to do minimize our chances against to be successful and to go to the next level.

"I think probably, them losing to Pittsburgh last year, they probably found that out firsthand. I expect them not to change their style a whole lot come playoff time, but they'll understand they can't trade chances the whole game," Gretzky added. "They will have to be a little more attentive to the defensive side, and I think they will be because of learning from what happened to them in the second round last year. Very similar to what we learned from losing in the finals to the Islanders that year."

The learning process is ongoing. Losing a seven-game playoff series to Philadelphia in the first round two seasons ago and going seven with both the Rangers and Penguins last spring are classroom sessions the Caps have already benefitted from.

"The playoff defeats have been bitter for the players," said McPhee. "That kind of experience has to make you a better player. You're playing a high level, and you come back the next year and play at a higher level."

PITTSBURGH -- With the Vancouver Games just around the corner, the talk in both the Capitals and Penguins' dressing rooms is beginning to pick up on the Olympic front. There are five Olympians on each roster.

"We were in Vancouver last week, so you were able to take in some things," said Pens captain Sidney Crosby, who will spearhead Team Canada's offensive attack.

"You're always trying to anticipate and think what things are going to look like, but I was there. It was good mentally to see that and prepare. But for me, the most important thing is that I'm playing as well as possible going into that. That's really been my focus. When time permits, you kind of let yourself think about it."

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik will have to try and shut down his buddies Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when Team USA plays Canada and Russia, respectively.

"You do have to go against them both in practice every day. Geno probably doesn't go 100 percent every day, but Sid obviously does," Orpik said with a smile today. "So you get a little taste of it. Those are guys you want on your side, not playing against. It's definitely a unique thing. You invest so much time here with them and then you go up against them in a tournament ... you can't let up on them, though. They'll make you look stupid. They certainly won't let up on you."

Just as long as everybody gets along after the Olympics, right?

"You definitely think, `What if I injure one of those guys? What's the backlash?' But you can't think that way," said Orpik.

Linemates Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been a dynamic duo for the Caps for a few years now, but come Vancouver, they'll need to postpone their friendship.

"It's going to be different, but I mean, it's the Olympics," said Backstrom. "We're not friends on the ice there."

The natural rivalry, of course, would be Ovechkin versus Crosby in a gold-medal game, but the Caps superstar wanted none of that talk Wednesday night.

"Why does everyone think Russia and Canada will be in the gold-medal [game]?," said Ovechkin. "I think lots of good teams will be in the tournament. You never know who's going to be the winner over there. Today, [Sweden is] still defending Olympic champions."

Good point, Alex. I asked Backstrom today if he took offense to the fact everyone is talking about a Canada-Russia gold-medal game even though his country is the reigning Olympic champion.

"I think that's good," said Backstrom. "You guys keep talking about Canada and Russia and maybe we can surprise people."

Caps forward Tomas Fleischmann made the Czech Olympic team and likes his team's chances.

"I think everybody is expecting Russia or Canada to win the gold, but I think we have a good chance to fight for the gold," he said. "Our team is really strong. So we'll see."

Of course, not everyone is going to Vancouver. Mike Green was passed over by Team Canada, a tough decision by executive director Steve Yzerman, who went with super sophomore Drew Doughty instead. Green was crushed.

"I'm sort of over it now," said Green. "Obviously I was disappointed at the time, but it is what it is. My main focus this year is the Stanley Cup."

Capitals coach, Bruce Boudreau still can't believe Green wasn't taken.

"He should have been there," said Boudreau. "I don't know what else can be said about him. We all look at Mike Green's faults and everybody jumps on the Duncan Keith bandwagon this year, whereas last year, it was the [Zdeno] Chara bandwagon. But we're in first place mainly because of Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin."

Green leads all NHL blueliners with 50 points (12-38); but most impressive perhaps is his plus-19 rating given the criticism of his defensive play. I think it's clear no matter what he did this season, the Team Canada brain trust wasn't going to forget his lackluster playoff performance last spring.

"That's his only negative thing, is that he didn't have a great playoff, so everybody wants to focus on that," fumed Boudreau. "He's having a tremendous year."

On the Pittsburgh side, Jordan Staal was the big omission. I had him among my Team Canada picks. When Brendan Morrow (upper body) was injured last Saturday, some people wondered if that might open the door for Staal; but it turns out the injury is not serious.

"Coming around good," Morrow told me via text message today. "Plan is best-case Sunday in Denver, if not Wednesday at home against Calgary."

PITTSBURGH -- Tonight's big rematch between the Capitals and Penguins could be missing some big names.

Star blueliners Mike Green (undisclosed) of the Caps and Sergei Gonchar (lower body) of the Penguins are both game-time decisions.

Gonchar hasn't been the same since blocking a shot Dec. 30 at New Jersey.

"He'll be game-time, but it looks like he'll be ready to go as well," Pens coach Dan Bylsma said.

Green didn't practice Wednesday, although he did skate this morning at Mellon Arena.

"We'll see," Green said this morning when asked if he was playing tonight. "As far as right know, yeah [he's playing]. But we'll see."

Neither Green nor Caps coach Bruce Boudreau would say exactly what's ailing the stud blueliner. He gingerly took off his equipment after speaking to reporters. Washington Post beat writer Tarik El-Bashir believes Green was banged up after taking a big hit from Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi on Tuesday night.

Asked why he didn't practice Wednesday, Green smiled and said, "I don't know, I just didn't feel like it."

This game not only feels like a playoff matchup, but the players are hiding injuries like it's May, as well!

Star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (fractured left ring finger) remains out and is day to day. Fleury took some shots before practice Thursday, using an enhanced catching glove. Brent Johnson gets the start in goal for Pittsburgh, facing his former team. Jose Theodore goes for the Caps. Neither goalie speaks to the media on game days, so we'll just assume they're both excited.

Also out for Pittsburgh are forwards Max Talbot (lower body) and Pascal Dupuis (face injury). For the Caps, defensemen John Erskine and Brian Pothier, both day to day with upper body injuries, are also out for tonight. World junior hero John Carlson was called up from the AHL. And, of course, rookie netminder Semyon Varlamov remains out and appears to have suffered a setback in his recovery.

"Well, it was originally his groin and then he hurt his knee, so that's two different injuries," Boudreau said. "It's exactly the same thing that happened last year, but I'm still thinking he'll be fine by the beginning of February."