The season is winding down and the window for the Capital’s playoff chances is getting smaller. Washington rallied late in Halak’s debut at the Verizon center over the Phoenix Coyotes. There was a buzz around DC Monday night, not only because of the rivals that were in town visiting, but also because of the long awaited arrival of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov was the 26th selection of the 2010 NHL draft and there were doubts that he would ever come to the NHL. The Caps took a chance on the Russian prospect, who is considered one of the more talented young hockey prospects in the world. Four years later, Kuznetsov made his debut in red Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As great of a story Kuznetsov’s arrival is, defense is still the main issue on the hockey club and it was right off the bat in this key match up. Sidney Crosby put a nice tape-to-tape pass cross-ice to fellow line mate Chris Kunitz, who skated right around Mike Green. Kunitz soared in for a one on one finish on Jaroslav Halak just forty-six seconds into the match. The Caps were quick to respond in the fast paced game.
Eric Fehr made a nice play in the neutral zone and generated a possession into the offensive zone. Jason Chimera found a streaking Fehr across the ice for a tip in goal to tie the game up at one a piece.
An achilles heel of the Washington team that has remained consistent throughout the season is allowing the opposition to respond within two minutes of scoring. Ovechkin got a roughing minor, which then led to a Sidney Crosby one timer goal just under fifty seconds after the Fehr goal.
A fast paced period with all three goals coming in just the first four minutes of the game came to a close with Pittsburgh up 2-1. Washington outshot the Penguins 9-7 in the first period and their ability to get pucks to the net transitioned into the second frame.
Joe Vitale was called for a tripping minor at the 8:35 mark of the second period. Washington was 0 for 1 during the second, but one of the league’s best power plays cashed in on their second chance. Nicklas Backstrom got the credit for his 13th goal of the season after he threw a nice pass to the front of the net. His pass was intended for Brooks Laich, who at first appeared to get the tip in goal.
Pittsburgh responded nearly four minutes later for the eventual game-winning goal. Lee Stempniak fired a soft shot to the net and Halak kicked out the puck with his right pad. The puck was kicked out right to Kunitz for the layup and his second goal of the night.
The Capitals had their chance late when the Penguins were called for having too many men on the ice. The penalty came with just over two minutes left in the contest, so Washington pretty much had an extra man opportunity for the rest of the third frame. Coach Oates pulled Halak and the Caps had a 6 on 4-man advantage, but they were unable to get anything to the net for the tying goal.
This was a tough loss for Washington because they played a good game. They were 1 of 3 on the power play against the leagues top ranked penalty kill unit. They outshot a high-powered offense 33-20, but still came up short.
Washington must rebound quickly as they face the Penguins tomorrow at Consol Energy center. With their failed opportunity at two points tonight, the Caps must come away with a road win tomorrow against one of the best teams in the Eastern conference. Jaroslav Halak did not have his best night, so it could be Braden Holtby getting the start in net for the back-to-back matchup.
Evgeny Kuznetsov saw action on the fourth line, the first and even a short amount of time on the power play unit. He was pretty solid in his debut with the little bit of action he got on the ice. His role will be something to monitor going forward as he gains more game experience.
The Stanley Cup playoff window is closing on the Caps and they need to string together a few wins in a row. A big road win tomorrow in Pittsburgh would be a great start in trying to generate momentum down the home stretch.