Capitals a desperate team heading into games with Penguins

WASHINGTON -- The Penguins and Washington will play twice in the next two days, and if history is any guide, they will coexist about as well as a cobra and a mongoose.

Provided the cobra has a sour disposition and the mongoose has a toothache, that is.

That explains why there were no audible gasps in the Capitals' locker room Saturday night, when center Brooks Laich suggested that "we'll be up for those two games."

It's hard to imagine his teammates feeling any other way, but not only because of their long, intense -- and occasionally bitter -- rivalry with the Penguins.

For the Capitals (30-25-10), who are fifth in the Metropolitan Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference, pretty much have to approach each of their remaining 17 games as a battle for professional survival.

Matchup: Penguins vs. Washington Capitals, 7:08 p.m. today, Verizon Center, Washington.

TV, Radio: Root, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Jaroslav Halak for Capitals.

Penguins:  Are 2-2 on five-game road trip, their longest of season. ... Rookie D Olli Maatta has six goals in past 16 games. ... Have scored 15 power-play goals in past 14 games.

Capitals:   Are 18-10-5 at home, including 4-0 loss to Penguins Nov. 20. ... C Nicklas Backstrom has 12 assists in his past 11 games. ... Are 7-19-3 when trailing after two periods.

Hidden stat: Capitals have scored three third-period goals two times in past three games.

"We know we're at a point where our season is on the line every single game," center Troy Brouwer said.

Beginning with the one against the Penguins tonight at the Verizon Center and the rematch Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.

Washington scored three unanswered goals in the third period to pull out a 3-2 victory Saturday against Phoenix. That snapped a three-game losing streak, and just might have prevented the Capitals' playoff prospects from going on life support before the Penguins even made it to town.

"A huge two points," Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin said.

Possibly the most important of the 70 the Capitals have earned to date.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the comeback against the Coyotes will trigger a stretch-drive surge or simply keep Washington in playoff contention for a few extra days.

For while the Capitals have some dangerous offensive talent -- Ovechkin leads the NHL with 44 goals -- their work in their own zone has been leaky all season, in large part because of a suspect defense corps.

Washington is allowing an average of 2.92 goals per game, seventh most in the league, and opposing forwards often are allowed to operate with impunity around the Capitals' net.

Factor in a penchant for untimely -- and frequently unforced -- errors, and Washington might be doomed if it doesn't become more stingy.

"We have to stop gifting goals," Laich said. "If they're going to score, they have to earn it. We have to be airtight defensively."

The Capitals have failed to hold two-goal leads in 10 games -- twice in one of those -- this season, going 4-3-3 when that happens. Win all of those, and they probably are more focused on where they'll be seeded for Round 1 of the playoffs, not simply whether they'll participate.

And they certainly wouldn't feel compelled to portray their home-and-home series with the Penguins as a must-win.

"We need four points in the next two games," Brouwer said.

The chances of getting those probably would be better if the Capitals could graft a defensive stalwart like, say, Rod Langway, onto their roster. Trouble is, at age 56, he might need a few years to scrape off the retirement rust.

Instead, Washington's lineup tonight likely will be bolstered by 21-year-old Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has played in his homeland since being drafted 26th overall in 2010.

He signed a two-year contract Saturday and had a one-man workout at the team's practice facility Sunday, an off-day for the rest of the Capitals.

Kuznetsov subsequently pronounced himself prepared to dress tonight, if called upon.

"I feel good," he told reporters. "If coach says I play, I play. But I'm ready."

Kuznetsov added that he played all three forward positions -- mostly right wing -- in the Kontinental Hockey League this season and has no preference where he is used. Indications are that he will start out on left wing.

Although the Capitals have not formally committed to dressing him against the Penguins, they've come close.

"We don't want to put him in a situation he can't handle right now," coach Adam Oates said "But if we can spot him in the lineup, it could be a nice spark for us."

Kuznetsov, who will live with Ovechkin for the balance of this season, has a well-rounded offensive repertoire.

Although injuries limited him to eight goals in 31 KHL games this season, the scouting report on Kuznetsov is that he's equally adept at setting up goals and scoring them.

"He's a good passer, a good skater," Ovechkin said.

What he's not, the Capitals insist, is someone who should be viewed as a potential savior of their season.

"We're not looking at him like he's going to come in and save this team and run this team," Laich said. "The core of the team is responsible for it.

"Pieces come and pieces go. If he's one that can help us, great."

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