Washington took the ice on a second consecutive night after a shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks at home. After facing one high-powered team, they traveled to Pittsburgh to take on the Metropolitan division leader Penguins. This was just the second time the Caps have faced the Penguins, the last time was November 20th at the Verizon Center. That game was not even close, as Pittsburgh left DC that night 4-0 winners. The game on NBC sports Rivalry Night in Consol Energy Center was a lot different than their first meeting.
The Caps have done much better right out of the gate to start the game as of late then they have all season. They did a nice job at the start of the first period, working the cycles and generating more puck possession in the offensive zone. Even with that said, the Penguins were getting their chances on several odd man rushes, due to offensive turnovers. Michal Neuvirth stood on his head during the first period, turning away all 17 shots that Pittsburgh put toward the net. When Joel Ward got a tripping minor just less than thirteen minutes in the first frame, you would think the upcoming power play opportunity would be costly for Washington.
After Kris Letang threw the puck into the neutral zone between two penguin players, Brooks Laich got the puck to start a 2 on 1 break. Letang prevented the cross crease pass, but Laich gathered the puck once again and put it past Marc-Andre Fleury for the short-handed goal. So during the Pittsburgh power play, Washington ended up cashing in on the road going up 1-0 heading into the visiting locker room after the first period.
The second period opened up much more for both hockey clubs. Washington ended up outshooting the Penguins in the second 13-8. The Pens struck first in the second period. After Washington turned the puck over in the offensive zone, Nicklas Backstrom pinched up into the slot, which came back to hurt them. His pinch forced a 4 on 2 odd man rush for Pittsburgh and Kris Letang got his redemption. He attempted to pass it across the crease, but a Caps defender deflected his pass in. The score was now tied up at 1.
Just over five minutes remaining in the period, Dmitri Orlov was at the point and passed it down to Marcus Johansson, who then found Jason Chimera cross crease for the easy tap in. It was a beautiful tic-tac toe passing sequence that gave the Caps a one goal lead. The Penguins responded just minutes later.
Olli Maata drove the net and put a fake shot on that sent Tom Wilson down on the ground in attempt to block the shot. That forced Connor Carrick to shift over and play him, which left Taylor Pyatt right in front of the net for the close range wrist shot to tie the game up once again. The second period came to a close and the game was tied up at 2.
The third period action really got going seven minutes into the period when Erskine and Malkin both drew penalties that forced 4 on 4 play. Mike Green was working his way across the blue line and found MoJo near the goal line extended, who looked across to Alex Ovechkin. Ovi recorded his league leading 34th goal of the season and the Caps took a one-goal lead in the third on the road.
Pittsburgh tied the game back up exactly three minutes later from Ovechkin’s goal. Brandon Sutter was working around near the boards and Jussi Jokinen snuck his away to the front of the net from behind the goal for the lay-up. As the minutes passed, it looked as if Washington was going to another overtime for a second consecutive night and would earn at least one point. After a hard fought game on the road, the Penguins crushed their hopes in the last two minutes of the match.
Evgeni Malkin was weaving his way all around the Caps defense and found Olli Maata at the point. He faked his first shot, moved to a better angle and threw the puck toward the net. There were several bodies in front of Neuvirth, including an excellent screen set by Pyatt. The puck found its way through the bodies and gave the Penguins the eventual game-winning goal.
The Capitals played well on the road, but the frustration could begin to build after not getting the winning result. It can also be frustrating for the fans, as this is the sixth straight loss to the rival Penguins. A couple of things to take away from tonight’s game:
Neuvirth faced 37 shots total and stopped 33 of them. He was the difference in the first two periods that kept the Caps in good position to win the game. When it came down to crunch time, he just did not make the big save to force it into extra time. Grubauer has shown his ability to make the big save consistently, that is why he remains the number one goal tender. The Caps goalie situation is a bit of a circus right now. Neuvirth has played solid in recent starts, but has requested a trade. Holtby who came into the season as the starter, has not gotten a start in quite some time. The club is leaning on the 22-year-old rookie to hold it down for now. I expect Holtby to get a start in the near future. It would certainly benefit the club for Holtby to get his confidence back because they really need someone to step up to make an impact.
Washington has faced two very good hockey teams in back to back nights and on both occasions, Alex Ovechkin has scored. You count on your big time players to make big time plays in big time games and the Great eight did just that. This team needs to find ways to find consistent scoring support. Oates has changed the line-ups these past two games and it appears good things are starting to happen. That will be something to keep an eye on over the weekend.
Nicklas Backstrom had one of his worst games of the season; it was not pretty. His pinch into the slot of the offensive zone led to one goal early in the game. Later, he was guarding Jokinen behind the net who then snuck around the front for an easy tap in goal. Backstrom was in front of the net with his stick up. If Backstrom would have been more aware of the situation and put his stick down on the ice, he could have easily prevented a goal.
Pittsburgh out shot the Caps 37-28. The penalty kill was outstanding tonight as they killed off all 3 of the dangerous Penguin power plays and even cashed in on a short handed goal. So the penalty kill gets an A grade for their performance. The power play unit went 0 for 2 tonight. One positive you could take away is that Washington is doing a better job of scoring in even 5 on 5 play, which seemed so difficult for them to do earlier this season.
Adam Oates and his hockey club continue their road trip against the Metropolitan division as they head to Columbus this Friday night. It is becoming crunch time for the Caps, they have played well in their past few games, but do not have the points to show for it. The rest of the division is tightening up as they fight for positions in the Stanley cup playoffs. If the Caps keep slipping, they might risk missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Puck drop is at 7 in Columbus Friday night.