Pregame #24: Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Washington Capitals (12-10-1) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (14-7-4)
Location:  Verizon Center
Time:  7:00 PM
TV: Comcast SportsNet (HD) (Game On!), NHL Network
Radio:  1500AM, 820 AM, and XM
Previous Games:
Oct 13, 2011 WAS@PIT, 3-2 W (OT)
Games Remaining:
Jan 11, 2012 PIT@WSH, 7:30 PM
Jan 22, 2012 WSH@PIT, 3:00 PM
Familiar Faces of Former Capitals:  G Brent Johnson (96 GP, 2005-09), LW Matt Cooke (17 GP, 2008)
Former Penguins: Assistant Coach Jim Johnson (390 GP, 1985-90)
Opposing Viewpoints:
Our Bloguin Partner: The Pensblog
Our friends at: City of Champions Sports

Which Penguins will get a sweater tonight?

The Washington Capitals got a new head coach for Tuesday night’s game.  Now they have a new assistant coach.  Bob Woods was replaced by former Washington Capital Jim Johnson as the coach of the team’s defensemen and penalty killing unit.  We can expect the Capitals defensemen to be a lot tougher in front of their net from now on, especially on the penalty kill, to the great relief of Caps fans.  Johnson spent 13 seasons in the NHL as a tough-as-nails defenseman, playing 829 regular season games and recording 195 points and 1,197 penalty minutes.  A Minnesota native, Johnson played four seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (with Brett Hull) and returned to play with the Minnesota North Stars for 3 seasons after opening his career in Pittsburgh, where he played with now-owner Mario Lemieux, TV color commentator Bob Errey, and radio analyst Phil Bourque.  During the franchise’s first season in Dallas, Johnson was traded to the Caps for now-Comcast SportsNet analyst Alan May on March 21, 1994.  Johnson played 121 regular season games in DC with Dale Hunter and Olaf K from 1994-1996 and also skated in 13 of his 51 career playoff games in DC, all of them against Pittsburgh.  After leaving DC, Johnson was in the middle of his second season in Phoenix when he suffered a career-ending concussion.  Upon announcing his retirement in 1998, he spent four seasons in the Phoenix organization as a consultant.  A veteran of 5 international tournaments, Johnson was also an assistant coach for the United States World Junior Team three times, from 2000-02.  Johnson has stayed active in coaching through the founding of in 2003 and as founder/director of the P.F. Chang’s hockey program.  He was eventually picked up as a coach by the Tampa Bay Lightning organization for the tumultuous 2009-10 season.  He started with the AHL Norfolk Admirals as associate coach, was promoted to head coach, moved up to the NHL as an assistant coach, and then back to the AHL head coach.  He put up a 15-5-0-2 record as head coach and worked wonders on the team’s penalty kill, which finished in the AHL’s top 3. 

The Pittsburgh Penguins big news is just some kid named Sidney coming back from an injury.  Apparently he and some Italian guy named Geno are playing pretty well right now.  Neither of them are leading the team in scoring, though, that honor belongs to LW James Neal, who has 14 goals and 25 points in 25 games and has already cracked 100 shots on goal.  The Penguins sit atop the Atlantic Division and have solid special teams to thank for it.  With the 3rd-ranked penalty kill (89.5%) and the 8th-ranked powerplay (18.9%), the Penguins are in the top-5 in goals per game and in the top-half of the league in goals against.  They have depth throughout their lineup, in spite of recent injuries, and have a good system and coaching guidance.  Despite the Capitals taking the first game of the season series in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will be a tough opponent tonight.

Injury Report:   Capitals’ D Mike Green (groin) and RW Jay Beagle (head) are out.
-For the Penguins, D Kris Letang (broken nose) and D Zbynek Michalek (finger) are day-to-day.  C Dustin Jeffrey (knee) and D Ben Lovejoy (wrist) are on injured reserve. 

Three Things To Watch For:

Sid vs. Ovie:  After years of wondering when we’d ever hear the end of this contrived storyline, this is the first time we get to trot out this match-up since the Winter Classic, 11 months ago.  Sidney Crosby has just returned from a concussion suffered in that game and has racked up 11 points in 5 games.  In a stark contrast to the toast of the league, Alex Ovechkin is at a turning point in his season and his career.  On one hand, he is mired in a season long slump, and with only 4 points in his last 10 games, it doesn’t seem to be improving.  On the other hand, he’s got a new coach and 4 points in his last 5 games, so he might be able to turn things around before he fades into irrelevance.  In any event, it’ll be good to have the NHL’s two brightest stars get their games back.

Off His Marc?:  Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has the pedigree and resume of a great goaltender.  First overall draft pick in 2003, two Conference Championships and a Stanley Cup, an All-Star Game, and nearly 200 career wins, etc.  Fleury has an impressive record this season, too, at 13-4-2, but his performance lately has been less than stellar.  After posting a shutout on November 21, Fleury has allowed at least 3 goals in each of his last 4 games and is 2-1-1 in that time.  In his last game against the Rangers on Tuesday night, the Flower let in 4 goals in a regulation loss.  While not all of a goalie’s troubles are of his own making, the Penguins’ suddenly soft underbelly should be just what the Caps need to get back on track. 

Slump Buster?:  This season has been expecially frustrating for 39-year old Caps RW Mike Knuble, who is trying to earn at least one more season for himself in the NHL before he hangs up his skates.  The Caps’ Alternate Captain is stuck at 2 goals and 7 points on the season through 23 games, and since November 4, Knuble has 0 points and a -8 rating in 12 games while mired on the 4th line.  Fortunately for him and the Caps tonight, he has feasted on Penguin throughout his career, with 31 goals and 46 points in 62 career games, including a goal in the first meeting this season.  His 14-game goal drought could end tonight with a classic crease-crashing effort from the man who is just 9 games shy of 1,000 for his career.