Capitals, Penguins renew rivalry

WASHINGTON — Even though they are playing their best hockey of the season, expect the Washington Capitals to find a little something extra in the tank Wednesday when the Pittsburgh Penguins come to town for the next chapter in this storied rivalry.

“It’s always something you kind of look forward to and know about,” Washington coach Todd Reirden told reporters. “Our players are excited to play against them. It’s always a good challenge.”

The Capitals have won five straight games to solidify first place atop the Metropolitan Division behind the continued excellence of Alexander Ovechkin, who has seven goals in his last three games and 29 on the season.

“Of course, you want to have as many points as you can,” Ovechkin said after practice Monday. “But I always say, you can’t score every game. You can’t make points every night. It’s hard. The league is hard right now. If you get a point or you get a goal, you get (lucky). … I just try to do my best.”

Ovechkin’s best has been more than enough for the Capitals, as their captain’s play is raising everyone’s level during a run in which they’ve won 12 of 13.

“The players are making it difficult for our staff to pick the guys who should be playing each night and that’s a good thing,” Reirden said. “That internal competition that we have going on right now is something that’s allowed us to have the type of success we’ve had the last 24, 25 games. It’s a good thing. It’s a good problem to have.”

The Penguins have righted the ship after a slow start, going 8-4-2 over their last 14 games, but they remain inconsistent, as evidenced in a 4-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday in which they squandered a two-goal lead.

The loss highlighted a persistent problem for Pittsburgh: the second period. In their 18 defeats, the Penguins have a minus-18 goal differential.

“Hopefully we can eliminate some of the bad periods here and get back on a substantial winning streak,” Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith told reporters after Monday’s game. “It’s just part of the game. We have to do a little bit better job of managing it and we’ll be in good shape.”

While Braden Holtby figures to get the start for Washington, the Penguins goaltending situation remains fluid between DeSmith and Matt Murray, especially given the team’s busy schedule over the next few weeks.

“We’re trying to keep them both at their best by keeping them well-rested and sharp,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the team’s website. “Looking at the big picture this week, both of them are going to get a significant amount of playing time.”

This is already the third game of the season between the Penguins and Capitals, with the teams splitting the prior two games. Pittsburgh won a 7-6 thriller on Oct. 4, while Washington captured a 2-1 victory on Nov. 7.

“Yeah, it’s a big rivalry, with lots of emotion,” Ovechkin said. “Fans get involved. You guys. It’s a fun time to play.”