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Why tonight’s Penguins-Capitals showdown is huge for Washington

Dec 23, 2010, 6:26 PM EDT

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With the Winter Classic on its way next week in Pittsburgh, tonight’s Capitals-Penguins game in Washington takes on a bit more of the spotlight. It’s the first meeting of the year between the teams and while each team has been playing well so far this season, the Caps come into the game on a short, two-game win streak but still unsure of where they’re at as a team. The Penguins showed a lot lately rattling off a 12-game win streak before losing two in a row. They too enter this game on a two game win streak but if there’s a team that has something to prove tonight it’s Washington.

The Capitals losing streak caused a bit of a panic amongst fans and media alike and the worry that it caused the Capitals coaches and players showed on their faces during both episodes of HBOs 24/7 series (our review of each episode are here and here). While winning over Ottawa seemed to take the monkey off the Caps backs, beating the Senators and Devils (who fired their coach today following that loss) in back to back games doesn’t look very impressive.

Tonight, the Capitals have a chance to show that their losing streak and bad habits are, indeed, all behind them. Playing against the Penguins gives them their first opportunity in a while to show that they’re capable of playing a great game against a great team. They played a tough game against Boston that saw them get down 3-0 in the first period and after Mike Knuble read the riot act to his teammates between periods, the Caps snapped out of their haze and stormed back to get within a goal of Boston before losing. They lost but went down fighting. A similar kind of start against Pittsburgh tonight will take a rabid Verizon Center crowd out of the game and once again test the mental mettle of what, thanks to 24/7, seems to be a very hot and cold psychological team in Washington.

We understand that it’s just one game, but for the Capitals this one game offers them an opportunity. An opportunity to rally around each other and to rally around coach Bruce Boudreau. A poor showing tonight would reflect badly upon Boudreau and would really drive up the talk about whether or not Boudreau should be the guy in charge of things in D.C. Tonight’s game gives Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin the opportunity to snap out of their offensive funk and take the spotlight away from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for a night.

The Penguins are the media darlings right now but if the Capitals want to grab the spotlight for themselves and show that they too are serious contenders this season, taking care of business in any way against Pittsburgh would send the appropriate message. The residual effect it would have on the Winter Classic and every other meeting between the teams this year would turn each game into its own version of must-see TV and that’s just the way the NHL would like it to be. Now it’s up to the Capitals to figure out if they want it as bad as they say they do.

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