Jan 21, 2012, 6:51 PM EDT
This isn’t quite the Penguins-Capitals game we were expecting when the year began — when the two teams square off at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC), it won’t be a battle between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
The Pens roll into this game on a five game winning streak, and a lot of that is thanks to Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin’s play this season without Crosby and Jordan Staal around is nothing short of amazing. Malkin has always been a superstar, but the work he’s putting in — jumping to the top of the NHL points leaderboard, making sure the Pens don’t lose their way while they’re swamped with injuries — is incredible.
Malkin having 24-goal-scorer James Neal riding shotgun with him on his line gives the Pens a nice one-two punch. With Kris Letang back in action after being out with a concussion, the Penguins have a bit more balance on defense and with Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, they’re never easy to beat. Coach Dan Bylsma has kept everything together in the face of injury disaster and, with guys slowing getting back to action, Pittsburgh’s shaping up to be a threat in the East.
For Washington, Ovechkin’s season hasn’t been nearly as mind-blowing. With how he compares to Malkin, you could argue that Ovechkin isn’t even the best Russian player in this game. Without Nicklas Backstrom to help set him up, Ovechkin will have to hope that his newest right wing, Troy Brouwer, can provide more of the snarl the Caps have lacked in the past to help them grind through games.
Getting improved play from their defense and goaltending would go a long way to helping the Caps. When Tomas Vokoun has been sharp, he’s looked outstanding. (Then there are other times when they’re losing to the Islanders and Hurricanes 3-0.) Without Mike Green (sports hernia) the Caps defense lacks both a real defensive stopper and an offensive weapon.
After going 4-4-0 in their last eight games, the Caps are still looking for consistency. The Pens would love nothing more than to continue their own streak and keep the Caps and coach Dale Hunter doubtful about how the team’s season will play out.
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