- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2017

President Trump’s only been a D.C. resident since January, but he sounds as skeptical of the Washington CapitalsStanley Cup chances as a jaded 20-year season ticket holder.

The president, who welcomed the NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins to the White House Tuesday, one day ahead of their first regular season rematch with the Capitals, predicted a three-peat for Sidney Crosby and Co. — while gleefully rubbing a little salt into the wounds of Washington hockey fans.

“Are they tough, the Washington Capitals?” a jovial Trump asked the Penguins, who have sent the Capitals home the last two years. “Are they tough? What do you think, huh?”

The Penguins and the Capitals meet Wednesday for the first time since May’s heated seven-game series — a playoff loss that left Washington with a hockey hangover that lingered into the NHL preseason.

But a 2-0-1 start to the regular season — along with seven Alex Ovechkin goals in those three games — has helped the Capitals close the door on last spring and refocus on the season at hand.

This is still, however, the Penguins.

Wednesday’s contest will be the Capitals‘ first nationally televised game of the season, and there is intrigue beyond being just the fourth game of 2017-18.

“I don’t think anybody has to pile on more in terms of the significance of the rivalry,” coach Barry Trotz said. “They don’t like us. We don’t like them.”

As for the timing of the matchup, Trotz and players said it doesn’t matter — everyone will be up for playing the champs.

“They certainly get your full attention when they come on the schedule,” Matt Niskanen said.

“You always get some emotions there, for sure,” Andre Burakovsky said.

Matching up against Pittsburgh will be an early test of what is and isn’t working for the Capitals. Washington’s top two lines have emerged as an offensive strength through three games — thanks in part to Trotz’s decision to split up Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Defensively, the Capitals remain much more of a work in progress. Washington’s third defensive pairing of Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney have barely seen the ice, leaving Trotz to rely heavily on his top four defensemen.

Washington is also dead last in the league in shot differential. Teams have taken 38 more shot attempts the Capitals through three games. After a 4-3 overtime loss on Monday to Tampa Bay, Trotz noted how tired his defensemen looked.

“It takes some time to get back in the rhythm of things,” Niskanen said Sunday. “Get your feel back for the game. … The season is marathon, so keep working at it and try to be consistent in your approach.”

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is working through problems of its own. They are 1-1-1 to start the year, including taking an uncharacteristic 10-1 beatdown in Chicago. The Penguins rebounded with a win in a Stanley Cup-rematch in Nashville.

At the White House, the Penguins were in a celebratory mood. Trump singled out the efforts of each Penguin and highlighted the return of a healthy Kris Letang, the Penguins‘ top defenseman.

He noted the “bad damage” the Penguins would always do to his hometown New York Rangers.

“It’s called winning, right Sidney?” Trump asked, calling out the Penguins‘ star.

Near the end of Trump’s remarks, the president said, “I know the Capitals will be looking for payback [Wednesday], so we will let you get back to practice.”

Payback in the regular season? That’s hard to argue. But it wouldn’t be a rivalry without the playoff history.

“They’re usually fun games against them, usually spirited and competitive,” Niskanen said.

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