Last year at this time, DC was buried under Snowmaggedon. The Caps lit the region with a hard-fought win over the Penguins as everyone prepped for the Super Bowl. This year, it’s deja-vu…sorta.
The Caps came into this afternoon’s contest on a mission to establish themselves and their game plan. After their dominating win over Tampa on Friday, it was imperative the Caps continue their new-found momentum as the Pittsburgh Penguins visited the Verizon Center.
Pittsburgh, however, arrived missing two of their marquee players. Sidney Crosby was currently out of the lineup due to lingering concussion symptoms from a Jan 5 game against Tampa Bay, and Evgeni Malkin was out, awaiting a second opinion on his torn MCL/ACL in his right knee. (Malkin may be out for the season at this point.)
So facing the Caps was a battered Penguin squad that, despite missing their stars, were on a five game win streak and looking to redeem themselves from a 3-1 loss at the Winter Classic on Jan 1. Would there be extra attention focused on David Steckel for his accidental hit on Crosby? All signs pointed to ‘yes’ – and midway through the third, Penguins call-up Tim Wallace took it upon himself to do the honors. (More on that in a bit.)
The Caps have been in the midst of an offensive change of style of late, something that we’ve seen in fits and starts over the last month. It seemed that Friday’s contest against the Lightning was when it all clicked, and this afternoon’s game showed further proof that the Caps are indeed evolving into a playoff contender.
Play started out slow, with both teams going for physical play and less flash. Lots of chip-ins and dump-n-chase hockey, each line looking for the other to make a critical mistake – or who would flinch first. Ovechkin was a force from the start, registering two big hits in the first period (one absolutely flattening Chris Kunitz behind the Penguin net). Shots were low, with an 8-5 advantage going to the Caps. But what mattered was a late-period scrum that saw a rebound pickup by Matheiu Perreault and John Erskine squirt to Brooks Laich, who slipped it through Fleury’s five-hole to send the Caps into the locker room up 1-0. Mike Green took a last-second Brooks Orpik shot off the noggin and left the ice with the team, a bloody rag pressed to the side of his head. He would not return.
The second period had a lot more jump as the Caps came in and shut down center ice. A lot of missed passes on the Penguins side turned into Caps chances, and the Caps had three chances on the power play but couldn’t convert. One goal was waved off on a bad call as Alex Goligoski checked Matt Hendricks into Fleury, causing interference and waving off the goal. The Caps got their revenge, however, as Marcus Johansson whipped a mid-zone shot in a clearing attempt that got by Fleury’s left shoulder, making it 2-0.
“The puck bounced from their D (defense) and I got it,” said Johansson. “Stecks (David Steckel) did a good job going to the net and I think Fleury didn’t see the puck coming. It’s a little lucky.”
Pittsburgh came out in the third with jump and chances, but couldn’t solve Neuvirth in the net. “He played really well. We didn’t get in front of him enough, again, to really create some offense,” said Penguins center Jordan Staal. The eventual shut out would be Neuvirth’s second of his career. He hasn’t started a game since January 18 against Philadelphia.
“I think we didn’t get to that part of the game that we wanted to,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “And we had chances to do that, [just] didn’t take advantage of it. He didn’t make some saves, as we did have a couple of flurries, there were some pucks in the crease, but he was strong on. We could have been much better.”
As the game wound down, tension ratched up; Wallace and Steckel traded blows and then, with less than four minutes remaining, Matt Cooke hit Ovechkin with a nearly knee-on-knee hit, flipping the Capitals captain and sending Cooke to the box. Give credit to Ovechkin and Backstrom – they charged Cooke and even landed a couple of blows (they weren’t penalized). The Caps couldn’t capitalize on the power play – they went 0-5 on the afternoon – but Mike Knuble sealed the game with an empty-netter. The last time the Caps shut out the Penguins was way back in 1991.
Overall, it was a good showing by the Caps. While the top line didn’t score like they did in Tampa, it didn’t mean they were absent as in other January games. Ovechkin, Chimera, and Backstrom – the starting linetoday – logged in 7 shots on goal (out of the team’s 24 total) and dropped 8 hits. Their presence was felt. But what was reassuring was the fact that the “unsung” heros of January, who kept the team chugging along under the names of Perreault, Johansson, Hendricks, were pretty much just as busy on the ice as well.
“It’s all about commitment. It’s a commitment to winning,” said coach Bruce Boudreau. “You block shots, one of your teammates goes down, another one picks it up.”
What fans saw at this game was a Caps team that is gelling well under their revised offensive system, one that definitely bodes well for playoff success. And in the NHL, it’s all about the playoffs.
Next game is here on Tuesday, with the still-stumbling San Jose Sharks. Puck drops at 7 p.m.
All photos courtesy me. Check out the complete set from the game.