March 19, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) and Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom (19) vie for control of the puck on a face-off during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Penguins Gameday Skate: Division lead at stake in rivalry matchup with Capitals

Much of the early story for the Pittsburgh Penguins revolved around their utter dominance of the new Metropolitan Division.

While the Pens built a sizable lead over their nearest pursuers with seven wins in their first eight games, purported contenders like the Rangers, Islanders, Blue Jackets and Capitals sputtered in the season’s opening weeks.

Skip ahead about a month and the complexion of the Metro has drastically changed. Yes, the Penguins (13-8-0, 26 points) still hold the top spot, but their margin has been reduced to a single point over Washington (12-8-1, 25 points) in advance of their Wednesday night matchup in D.C.

The Capitals, who are 7-1-1 in November, actually pulled ahead of the Penguins by a point Sunday night when they topped the Blues. Pittsburgh reclaimed the No. 1 position with Monday’s 3-1 win over Anaheim, but the message has been sent: the Metro division title won’t be handed over to the Pens.

Certainly, the tightened division race can also be accredited to the Penguins’ 6-7-0 record over the past month. Pittsburgh’s inconsistent offense appeared ready to short-circuit another effort Monday until three quick goals early in the third period eased the tension at Consol Energy Center.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has indicated he will maintain his revamped forward lines from Monday night, so we can expect Sidney Crosby to center Chris Kunitz and Beau Bennett, Evgeni Malkin between Pascal Dupuis and James Neal, and Brandon Sutter as the pivot for Jussi Jokinen and Brian Gibbons.

It’s a solid bet Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will get his 18th start of the season and seventh in a row for tonight’s 8 p.m. faceoff on NBC Sports Network.

As it usually is before a Pittsburgh-Washington collision, Crosby and Capitals star winger Alex Ovechkin will draw eyeballs. Crosby (26 points) is tied with St. Louis’ Alex Steen for the NHL scoring lead, while Ovechkin (17 goals) is knotted with Steen in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Tags: Alex Ovechkin Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby Washington Capitals

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