Super Bowl Sunday, against the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins, on national television. The Washington Capitals couldn’t have scripted a better opponent as they’re desperately seeking traction amid struggles early this season.
“Pittsburgh, you can’t help but get up for that game,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “If you don’t get up for these games there’s something wrong.”
A lot of things have gone wrong for the Caps, who have just five points in eight games. But while Thursday night’s game at the middling Toronto Maple Leafs might’ve been the worst thing to happen, facing the Penguins is a positive, even given the overflowing talent of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Co.
“They’re a team that can light you up for eight or 10 goals if you slack off,” Chimera said. “You’ve got to keep it up, you’ve got to have your best game. Right from goalie on out they’ve got a good team and some guys that can put the puck in net.
“They’re a dangerous opponent, but sometimes that brings out the best in you. You play good teams and for whatever reason it brings out the best in us.”
The Caps haven’t found a game yet that has featured their best play. Even victories have been full of flaws.
But beating the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night got the Caps feeling good, and the Penguins coming to town Sunday might be the perfect turn of the schedule.
“We love these games,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “These are why you play hockey right here, these are the ones you get up for, for sure.”
Adam Oates noticed progress by his team in recent games, encouraged by not just the result Friday but the process lately. Obviously his team won’t overlook the Penguins, but the coach doesn’t want to rely on his players just getting up for the Penguins at the perfect time.
“I would hope that right now I could answer that question for any team,” Oates said.
Given a 2-5-1 start to the season, the Caps must start catching up soon. Right wing Troy Brouwer called Pittsburgh a “tough opponent,” but the toughest task so far has been building a winning streak.
“It’s important because we need to start stringing some points together here,” Brouwer said. “We’ve dropped a lot the last couple games as far as points go and we have to try and get ourselves into a position where we can get back into the playoffs. That’s getting on rolls, wins, putting streaks together here.”
The Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry is almost be more important to the fan base than players, but there’s plenty of reverence for Crosby and Malkin within the Caps’ locker room.
“They are completely different, but they both have the right skills to play each other’s style,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Malkin, he’s one of those guys that he’s so big, I think he loses a little bit of his star power having Crosby there because he’s so good and so hard to defend. … I find that Malkin more sucks you in whereas Crosby doesn’t allow you to get there.”
But goaltender Braden Holtby is treating his second straight start and first of his career against the Penguins as “just another game.” He learned not to focus on rivalries and getting psyched out of games.
“You can get wrapped up in it pretty easily, looking at other teams’ star power,” Holtby said. “What I found that makes myself successful is just thinking of it as the shots come the same, you just have to react to ‘em. No matter who’s shooting, you just have to do your best to react, not get too overaggressive and just play it as it comes.”
The Caps are playing the Penguins Sunday because they’re up on the schedule. But as Alzner acknowledged, there’s “probably not many” better opponents to face right now.
“It’s just definitely a team where if you don’t play that 60 minutes like we’ve been talking about we’re going to be in trouble because they only a need a couple minutes to score a few goals,” he said. “It’s definitely a big test for us. But it’s the test we need right now.”