The reeling Washington Capitals (2-7-1, 5 points) will skate into the CONSOL Energy Center on Thursday night looking for a season-saving win over the surging Pittsburgh Penguins (7-3, 14 points).
Thursday night's clash will be a rematch of last weekend's blowout in Washington, DC, which the Penguins won 6-3 thanks to an epic four-goal performance from Chris Kunitz.
With the 2013 NHL regular season already more than 20 percent over thanks to the lockout, there's no more time to waste for Washington. Adam Oates' squad needs points in a hurry. As for Dan Bylsma's club, owners of the longest active winning streak in the league, Thursday's showdown provides an opportunity to improve and distance themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Here we'll get you set for this week's much-anticipated rivalry matchup in the Steel City.
Where: CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh
When: Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. ET
Watch: NHL Network
Live Streaming: NHL GameCenter
Key Injuries (according to USA Today)
Capitals: C Brooks Laich (questionable, groin), D John Erskine (out, suspension) and D Jack Hillen (out, upper body).
Penguins: D Matt Niskanen (out, lower body).
Capitals Player to Watch: Mike Ribeiro
The former Dallas Stars center has been one of the lone bright spots for the Washington Capitals this season.
Ribeiro is in his first season with the Caps, but is already looking right at home in DC, recording 11 points (three goals and eight assists) through the club's first 10 games. Washington will need the 32-year-old to be at his best on the road Thursday, as the Pens showed just how prolific they can be offensively this past weekend, topping the Caps 6-3 on Sunday.
Pittsburgh also ranks inside the Top 10 this season in fewest goals allowed.
Although Ribeiro's impact will likely be felt as a creator, he is very accurate when he opts to take on the scoring role. His shooting percentage ranks third-best on the team this season at 21.4 percent.
Penguins Player to Watch: Chris Kunitz
Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz has developed into a fearsome goal scorer early on this season, and the Washington Capitals know all too well how deadly he can be. Last Sunday, Kunitz netted a hat trick in DC, recording three goals with over six minutes still left to play in the second period. He would add a fourth before it was all said and done.
The 33-year-old is on a career pace at the moment, boasting a shooting percentage of 37.5.
In addition to putting up goals in bunches, Kunitz is a talented playmaker capable of setting up other Penguins. He has six assists through 10 games this season.
Keep an eye out for Kunitz on Thursday. Perhaps he has an encore performance up his sleeve.
Key Matchup: Alex Ovechkin vs. Penguins Blue Liners
Alex Ovechkin has been nonexistent to start the season for the Washington Capitals, scoring just two goals in 10 appearances. Clearly, the Caps need Ovi to become involved more often, and a whole lot more effective with his chances.
He's yet to score in three games this February, and considering how stout the Pittsburgh defense has been in recent victories, his disappointing streak looks primed to continue.
The Penguins defense has surrendered a total of six goals over the course of their four-game winning streak.
But if Washington is going to have any shot to win on the road against the Eastern Conference's top team on Thursday, Ovechkin has to break through with a goal or two. His firepower is vital to the Caps' success, and without it they are anything but a playoff team.
The Capitals and Penguins are each trending in the opposite direction this winter. While Pittsburgh looks poised for the Stanley Cup Finals, Washington seems set for an early offseason.
I'm taking the Penguins at home on Thursday. They've won four straight overall and plus, the Caps are win-less on the road this season. The best Washington can hope for it seems is an overtime loss, that way they can come away with at least a point.
Even that, though, may be asking too much.
Penguins 4, Capitals 2
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