Penguins-Capitals Preview

The Associated Press

Expected again to be among the league's elite, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals instead find themselves struggling to remain in playoff position.

Losses and injuries are piling up for the Penguins, who hope to avoid their first six-game losing streak in nearly six years Wednesday night when they visit the Capitals.

Pittsburgh and Washington have become playoff mainstays with the Penguins qualifying for each of the last five postseasons, while the Capitals have won four straight Southeast Division titles.

This season, however, hasn't gone as planned for either team.

Washington (21-17-2) has already made a coaching change, sits 10th in the Eastern Conference and is without leading scorer Nicklas Backstrom (head) and defenseman Mike Green (groin), but those problems pale in comparison to those of its bitter rival.

Besides playing most of this season without captain Sidney Crosby (concussion), the Penguins also are missing center Jordan Staal (knee), top defenseman Kris Letang (concussion) and forward Dustin Jeffrey (knee).

Pittsburgh (21-16-4) has dropped to fourth in the Atlantic Division and is mired in its first five-game losing streak in more than two years after falling 5-1 to Ottawa on Tuesday.

The Penguins have been held to one goal in each of their last four games, yielding 14 during that span. Pittsburgh hasn't lost six in a row since a 10-game skid Jan. 6-23, 2006.

Marc-Andre Fleury had been scheduled to have Tuesday night off, but Brent Johnson was pulled early in the second period after allowing three goals on eight shots. Fleury, who finished with 13 saves, has won only two of his last eight starts (2-3-2) against the Capitals despite a 2.63 goals-against average.

The Penguins did get some good news Tuesday when leading goal scorer James Neal was able to play after suffering a foot injury in Saturday's loss to New Jersey. It was originally thought Neal would be out "weeks."

"When you lose that many in a row, it's tough, but you've got to find a way to battle back and get back to where we were as a hockey team,'' Neal said. "Every game is crucial, but tonight was a crucial game and we came out and put ourselves in a hole right away.''

Washington appeared to be back on track with four straight wins, but lost both stops on a two-game California road trip - 5-2 decisions to San Jose on Saturday and Los Angeles two nights later.

Marcus Johansson scored both goals against the Kings for the Capitals, who play their next four games at home, where they've outscored opponents 14-4 during a four-game winning streak.

Alex Ovechkin was held without a point on the two-game trip after tallying seven goals and four assists during a seven-game point streak. Washington is 2-12-1 this season when the two-time MVP fails to record a point.

"I don't think it's all about me. It's all about us,'' Ovechkin said after Monday's loss. "We had a good start. We had emotion and we scored the first goal, but after that, we stopped playing and we made too many mistakes that cost us the game."

While Ovechkin's subpar season by his standards has been the focal point, team defense has been a bigger problem for the Caps. They have allowed five or more goals in 11 games already this season after doing so just six times in all of 2010-11.

The Capitals improved to 11-0-2 against the Penguins in 13 regular season meetings after a 3-2 victory Oct. 13, but Pittsburgh won 2-1 in Washington on Dec. 1.

Seven of the last 11 games between these teams have been decided by one goal.

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