When the Washington Capitals face the host Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, there most likely will be a little extra charge in the air. There usually is when the longtime rivals meet.
This storyline has an extra layer, though, as both teams are desperate to qualify for the playoffs.
Pittsburgh (35-27-10, 80 points) is clinging to the second and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Washington (34-31-8, 76 points) sits out of the postseason picture, not only four points back of the Penguins but also two spots back.
The Penguins hold the longest active streak in North American major sports with 16 consecutive postseason appearances.
While every one of their 10 remaining games is crucial in trying to reach 17, Pittsburgh’s latest hardship could be significant.
No. 1 goaltender Tristan Jarry turned up injured Thursday — the third time he has been hurt this season — after playing and winning Wednesday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. Backup Casey DeSmith made 30 saves Thursday as the Penguins fell just short in Dallas 3-2.
“He’s playing really well,” Penguins leading scorer Sidney Crosby said of DeSmith. “He’s been in this situation before, down the stretch where he has to play a lot of games and be leaned on pretty heavily at different points.
“He looks confident, and we’re confident in him.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said Jarry has a lower-body injury, and that no timetable has been set for his return. Jarry was not able to dress as the backup in Dallas, with the team recalling Dustin Tokarski.
So the Penguins, who also are without four injured defensemen, will make the charge toward a possible playoff berth as best they can despite being short-handed, watching the teams around them. They had lost four in a row before the 1-1 road trip.
“Everybody scoreboard-watches a little bit this time of year. It’s human nature,” Sullivan said. “But we’re focusing on what we can control in our game.”
The Capitals could probably say the same.
They also are saying good things about Thursday, when they pasted the Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 after a three-game losing streak (0-2-1).
One big boost came with the return of defenseman John Carlson, who was out three months because of a skull fracture. He played 20:01 and scored a power-play goal and added an assist.
Carlson said he felt “probably better than I thought, but still not very good. … Obviously, I wasn’t expecting to play a perfect game — no one ever does — but it was nice to be back under fire.”
Washington goaltender Darcy Kuemper returned in that game after missing two because of injury — the Penguins can only hope Jarry’s absence is as brief — and had a relatively intact defense in front of him with Carlson back and Trevor van Riemsdyk returning from paternity leave.
“We missed him,” Kuemper said of Carlson. “In my position, I definitely missed him out there. We’ve all been watching the hard work he’s been putting in to get back, and to see someone go through something so scary and then make a comeback like that, and then have a performance like that, was pretty special.”