Penguins prepare to face Capitals, red-hot Alex Ovechkin
After sitting out the first three games as the team’s seventh defenseman, Chad Ruhwedel figures to make his season debut Wednesday night in Washington in place of the injured Ian Cole.
His first assignment? Trying to slow down a red-hot Alex Ovechkin, who had a hat trick in each of his first two games of the year.
Welcome to the lineup, Chad.
“Obviously, he’s off to a good start right now,” Ruhwedel said. “We’ll definitely be trying to do something about it.”
The Capitals underwent significant roster changes in the offseason, losing some key players in a salary cap crunch. Most notably, defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt and forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams moved on.
The roster changes gave rise to talk that Washington’s run as a top-of-the-standings threat was nearing its end, but early results haven’t born that out, especially as it relates to Ovechkin.
He had a hat trick on opening night in a 5-4 win over Ottawa and followed with a four-goal effort in a 6-1 blowout of Montreal two days later. He was held off the scoresheet in a 4-3 Capitals loss at Tampa Bay on Monday night.
“Still a lot of guys left from those playoff series,” Sidney Crosby said. “They’re playing good hockey. They’re always heated games. It will be a good test for us.”
For a while, it was starting to look like Ovechkin might no longer be a player opponents had to prepare a special game plan to stop. He scored 33 goals last season, the second-lowest total for a full season in his career. He was held to two goals during a seven-game second-round playoff series against the Penguins, getting shuffled around in the lineup in the process.
Ovechkin’s start to this season, however, has shown reports of his demise were, at the very least, premature.
Ovechkin gave much of the credit for his scorching start to his linemates, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and prospect Jakub Vrana.
“It’s a fun time when you play like that, and your line’s feeling it,” Ovechkin said. “It’s fun to play.”
Coach Barry Trotz attributed the start to a renewed commitment to offseason training by the 32-year-old Russian superstar.
“I think Alex took it heart that he’s got to keep evolving,” Trotz said. “It’s tougher when you get older. You’ve got to work our harder. When you’re younger, you can probably cut a couple of corners because the body responds. As you get older, the body has to be the driving force. I think he put a little more work into that area, and he’s got off to a good start here.”
The matchup against the Capitals is part of a difficult stretch of schedule for the Penguins, who opened with three games against Western Conference favorites — St. Louis, Chicago and Nashville — and will head to Tampa Bay to face a contender for the Eastern Conference crown Thursday.
“Our schedule’s been tough,” winger Phil Kessel said. “We won last year, and we played back-to-back opening nights and three in four. It’s a tough start. But I thought we played well last game. We just gotta move on from there.”
The Penguins could get a lineup boost if winger Patric Hornqvist makes his season debut. Hornqvist resumed practicing after offseason hand surgery and figures to be a game-time decision Wednesday night.
“He brings a lot of energy on and off the ice,” Crosby said. “Just with the level of desperation and urgency he plays with, I think that’s something that’s contagious. It’ll be great to see him back out there with us.”
Note: With Cole out, the Penguins called up 6-foot-2 defenseman Chris Summers from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Summers, 29, has played 70 career NHL games with the Rangers and Coyotes.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.