ARLINGTON, Va. – The Washington Capitals have had a week of self-reflection and, they hope, self-realization in getting back to the way they want to play consistently following a stretch when they lost four of six games.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have liked the way they’ve played recently but haven’t gotten the results with losses in three straight and two wins in their past eight games (2-5-1).
That’s the context in which the two Metropolitan Division rivals enter their final meeting of the regular season at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena on Saturday (3 pm ET; ABC, SN1, ESPN +, NHL LIVE). It’s also possibly the last and best opportunity for the Capitals to climb up from the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Conference and catch the Penguins, who are third in the division.
Washington (38-22-10) is six points behind the Pittsburgh (41-21-10) with two games in hand.
“A chance to move up the standings, that’s still a possibility,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said Friday. “But any time we play Pittsburgh, we’ve got to be on point with what we’re doing. We’ve got to compete hard. They’re a competitive group inside of the battles. They’re a battle-ready group. and you’ve got to be ready to compete in those battles with them.So it should be a good game, but certainly the points are there for the taking.
“It could move us up the standings and still have a couple games in hand.”
The Capitals have 12 regular-season games remaining and the Penguins have 10. Each team is seeking to recapture its winning identity before the playoffs begin.
Washington believes it took a step in that direction with a 4-3 victory against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. That followed consecutive lopsided defeats against the Carolina Hurricanes (6-1) on March 28 and the Minnesota Wild (5-1) on Sunday.
The loss to the Wild prompted two days of meetings, including one strictly among the players Monday to air out some of the issues that have been plaguing them.
“I think often when you hear about them, it might seem a little more dramatic than it is,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “I think at the end of the day, it’s just getting the group together as a team and talking about things that anyone kind of has on their minds or address things and obviously create a little bit of a sense of urgency that as a group we need to pull out of it together. “
Laviolette also declared the No. 1 goalie job up for grabs after it appeared Vitek Vanecek had secured the position heading into the playoffs. Vanecek’s recent struggles (5-4-0, 3.58 goals-against average, .886 save percentage since March 8) opened the door for Ilya Samsonov, who made 25 saves against the Lightning to earn his first home win since Dec. 29.
“‘Sammy’ had a real good start the other night,” Laviolette said. “Vitek has proven that he can do it. He had a long stretch he put together where he was a top five, top six goaltender in the League. But to stay there, you’ve got to do it consistently.”
The Penguins have been preaching patience and trying to remain confident that wins will come if they continue playing as they have been. Pittsburgh came up short in difficult games against the NHL-leading Colorado Avalanche on April 2 (3-2 loss) and Tuesday (6-4) before losing 3-0 at the New York Rangers on Thursday with a lineup that was missing center Sidney Crosby because of a non-COVID illness. The Penguins are six points behind the Rangers for second in the Metropolitan.
“When you look at the last handful of games, I feel like the team has played pretty hard,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We haven’t got the result, but we’ve just got to continue to stay with it. That’s the message that we gave the guys after the game. [Thursday]. We’ve got to learn through each experience. We can’t dwell on it. We’ve got to look at the one in front of us and try to win that game. “
Getting healthier would help. In addition to Crosby, the Penguins were also missing defenseman John Marino and forward Radim Zohornabecause of non-COVID illnesses Thursday, and forwards Jason Zucker (lower body) and Brock McGinn (upper body) because of injuries.
The Penguins did not practice Friday, so it’s unknown if any of those players will be available against the Capitals.
“I think we’ve played a couple good games in a row now,” Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry said. “I think it’s motivation. It’s motivation for us to get back in the win column. I think we’ve been doing the right things. I just don’t think we’ve been getting the bounces and some of the points in the last couple of games, but I think the team has been playing really well and I know it will turn around. “
A win against the Capitals would likely mean the Penguins will finish no lower than third in the division and keep alive their hopes of catching the Rangers. If the Capitals lose, they’d likely finish as the second wild card in the East. Washington trails the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay, who are tied for third in the Atlantic Division and the first wild card, by seven points, so there’s a lot at stake.
“It’s huge,” Capitals forward Anthony Mantha said. “We’re just a couple points behind them. We have two games in hand. So like [Laviolette] said this morning, it’s almost a six-point game. “