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Capitals vs. Penguins Odds & Pick: Back Pittsburgh Despite Goaltending Struggles (Sunday, Feb. 14)

Capitals vs. Penguins Odds & Pick: Back Pittsburgh Despite Goaltending Struggles (Sunday, Feb. 14) article feature image

Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images. Pictured: Sidney Crosby.

  • Two perennial powers in the Eastern Conference face off on Sunday afternoon in D.C.
  • Pittsburgh's goaltending situation is less than ideal, and a change between the pipes could be coming soon.
  • Sam Hitchcock is backing the Penguins, a pick he explains below.

Capitals vs. Penguins Odds

Capitals Odds -103
Penguins Odds -114
Over/Under 6.5
Day | Time Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
Odds as of Saturday and via DraftKings.

What better way to spend your Valentine’s Day than rooting for a bet between two fossilizing Eastern division teams? Who says romance is dead?

The Washington Capitals haven’t played since Feb. 7 and the Pittsburgh Penguins have only played three games in February. Considering neither team is playing especially well heading into Sunday, maybe the time off to reflect and mend has helped both squads repair their deficiencies.

Ultimately, while their goaltending situation is terrifying, the Penguins are the preferred choice, given that they are better at 5-on-5 and have more mobility on defense than Washington. I also like that coach Mike Sullivan can set the matchups since the Penguins are at home.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

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Washington Capitals

The Capitals appear to be getting the band back together, with Ilya Samsonov, T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Justin Schultz and Evgeny Kuznetsov all looking like they will play on Sunday. That is encouraging because the Capitals’ last public appearance saw their first line account for all of their goals.

Two great stats emerged from this game. First, the Alexander Ovechkin line equaled the other three lines in shots on goal at 5-on-5. Second, Lars Eller made his return and was put on a line with Daniel Carr and Richard Panik. On paper, that seems like a boilerplate depth line but, shockingly, it allowed three goals on five shots. Ouch!

The Capitals are a bottom-five expected goals offense right now, which isn’t all a byproduct of feature players missing time. While several core Capitals forwards have been out, especially Kuznetsov, the team struggled offensively at the beginning of the season too, especially with not shooting enough.

Through their first four games, the Capitals ranked in the bottom five in shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and were the worst team in the NHL in shot attempts. Even though their last appearance against Philadelphia was a loss, the silver lining was that the Capitals produced the most 5-on-5 shots of any game of the season and registered the second highest shot attempts.

As mentioned, the Penguins’ goaltending is a potentially fatal flaw, so testing the goaltender early and often would be a good way to keep Pittsburgh off the attack and in scramble mode. Perhaps most importantly, getting Pittsburgh in chase mode is a way to draw penalties.

If goaltending is a way that Pittsburgh could lose the game, special teams is a path for the Capitals to win. Washington has the best power play in the NHL while the Penguins have one of the worst. Washington has had the same shtick for years and years, and because Ovechkin has arguably the best shot of all time, it never gets old and doesn’t get easier to defend.

Weirdly, the Capitals are the worst in the NHL at drawing penalties, but they may want to be a little lighter on their feet this game and work on their acting chops because the power play could annihilate the Penguins’ hopes of victory.

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Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have only one win in regulation this season, which appropriately causes critics to ding them for being a mediocre team. But they do have a few promising statistics, ones that are worth underlining in their matchup against the Capitals.

For as much handwringing as there is about the injury-laden Penguins’ defensive group, this squad ranks fourth best in 5-on-5 shots against per 60 minutes. Unfortunately in expected goals, they are closer to the middle of the pack, meaning that they give up more quality opportunities than would be preferred. But in terms of rubber on net they are doing a good job of limiting what gets on goal. Against the Islanders, the Penguins allowed seven goals in two games and their coverage got especially wonky in transition.

Against Washington, the Penguins should make a more concerted effort to gap up in the neutral zone and communicate their defensive coverage assignments. If the Capitals have their full complement on Sunday, Pittsburgh most certainly does not want Nicklas Backstrom or Kuznetsov flying into the offensive zone unencumbered.

If the Penguins get into a game in which they are trading rushes with Washington, this will cause one-on-ones in space where the result can be ugly. If you want proof, Google “Casey Czikas + John Marino” or “Pierre-Olivier Joseph + Mathew Barzal.” But the Penguins can capably forecheck and cycle, and if they can hem in their foe, the Capitals will get progressively sloppier with each second that ticks by in their own zone.

Lately, the Sidney Crosby line has been crushing its adversaries. In their last three games, this line more than tripled its opponents in high-danger chances and has a 68.76 expected goals percentage. Even if you don’t root for the Penguins, you have to admire Crosby & Co.’s playmaking in tight spaces and their creative passing, making them extremely difficult to defend.

Washington would love to have Zdeno Chara and John Carlson foiling the Crosby line, but without the last change it could be difficult for the Capitals to match their preferred defensive pairing against the Penguins’ top line. Maybe that forces coach Peter Laviolette to split Chara and Carlson up. Whether he does or doesn’t, what lines and pairings play against the Crosby line will be a matchup worth focusing on.

If you procrastinate — or were the type of kid who saved your vegetables for last — you will understand why it took me until now to mention the Penguins’ goaltending.

Elephant: welcome to the room.

Tristan Jarry has seven games under his belt and has been an unmitigated disaster. He is firmly sandwiched between the Ottawa netminders in woeful Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx).

Considering Jarry has been so bad, will Casey DeSmith get the start? Hopefully, but Jarry got the first start against the Islanders in the last series Pittsburgh played. To be clear, DeSmith’s numbers aren’t great, but they aren’t Jarry’s. Faint praise, but still…

The Penguins’ goaltending’s ability to torpedo the team’s chances of winning is the wild card in this contest. So, if you take the Penguins and you see Jarry’s name between the pipes, get ready for some fireworks.

Betting Analysis & Pick

If the price is right, choosing a team based on its special teams and goaltending advantage can be justified. But since the price is close to a pick’em, leaning on the team that can dictate the matchups and is better at 5-on-5 makes sense. At -114 on DraftKings, this matchup is sure to have you clutching at your heart in a game that seems destined for extra time.

Pick: Penguins -114

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