If you missed tonight’s Caps-Pens game on Versus in HD you missed an instant classic as the Caps defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-5, in a shootout to snap a six game Caps losing streak to the Penguins (the NHL Network will definitely re-run this game sometime in the next week or so). Despite the absence of NHL superstar Sydney Crosby for Pittsburgh the game featured two other NHL stars in Alexander Ovechkin and Evengi Malkin, the first two picks in the 2004 NHL entry draft, respectively. Both Malkin and Ovechkin had two goals and an assist and put on an absolute show. Ovechkin also tallied in the shootout but for some reason Penguins coach Michel Therrien chose not to let Malkin take a shot. To be perfectly blunt, this is the kind of game that sells hockey to the fans even though it probably drove the coaches and goaltenders a little bit crazy.
There were several players who contributed significantly for the Caps tonight, including rookie Nicklas Backstrom, who had four assists and set an NHL record for a rookie by being the first one ever to record back-to-back four assist games. Backstrom has been absolutely fantastic and is starting to put some major heat in the NHL Rookie of the Year race on Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. In addition, two players who rarely get the limelight, Dave Steckel and Quintin Laing, deserve a huge amount of credit for the win tonight because without their excellent shot blocking and penalty killing the Penguins win this game, 6-5, in OT likely scoring on a minute plus five on three power play they were given. Laing, in particular, was unbelievable throwing his body in front of shot after shot at one point to preserve the tie.
As for Ovechkin, he clearly has become one of the top five or six forwards in the NHL not only for his play but for his growing leadership (Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Vincent LeCavalier, Henrik Zetterberg and Ilya Kovalchuk are my other five). Immediately after the five on three OT penalty kill the great #8 went over and congratulated Steckel and Laing for their work in keeping the Caps alive in OT. The guy definitely understands what it takes to win and the need for all 20 guys on the roster to contribute. You can’t help but root for this guy and his team to keep winning. Ovechkin, by the way, now leads the NHL in goals with 38 (Kovalchuk has 37).
Another added bonus for the Caps in the last two games has been the vastly improved play of Viktor Kozlov. Kozlov had his second straight two goal game by going to the net, putting himself in scoring position, and getting rebound chances. It should also be noted that Kozlov had a huge hit on the boards that forced a Penguins turnover during the sequence that ultimately led to him receiving the puck for the game tying goal late in regulation. Kozlov is big so he needs to keep using his body along the walls.
For Coach Bruce Boudreau the one negative in this game was the Caps lack of ability to clear traffic in front of goalie Olie Kolzig, especially when shorthanded (Pittsburgh scored three power play goals). With Shaone Morrisonn out of the lineup the defense was forced to give the penalty killing minutes to Tom Poti, Milan Jurcina, and Jeff Schultz leaving John Erskine as the only defensemen with any size or strength to move opponents out of the way of Kolzig. Hopefully Morrison is not out long and the team really needs GM George McPhee to add a couple of defensemen who are physical and play in their own zone before the trade deadline (Eminger, Jurcina, and Schultz just can’t do it and Erskine’s lack of skating ability limits him).
The win tonight pushes the Caps record to 22-21-5 and only three points behind the Southeast division leading Carolina Hurricanes (who beat the New York Islanders, 3-2, in OT today). Washington still has three games in hand on Carolina and is also tied with the Atlanta Thrashers at 49 points overall. The Caps have a home and home series with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday and Thursday. Washington has owned the Leafs recently but must not take the Leafs lightly. The Leafs have been in disarray most of this season but before losing to the Devils on Sunday had won three games in a row.
After Thursday’s games the NHL shuts down for the weekend for the NHL All Star Game which is on NBC on Sunday at 6pm on Versus. There will be lots of goals and end to end action in this game but I am not a fan of the NHL’s version of an all star game because the lack of physical contact and defensive zone play does not make it a real game, in my opinion. Games like the Caps-Pens one tonight is what sells hockey: scoring, end to end action, and physical play.