The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins played what was likely their most intense hockey game of the season so far in an entertaining contest to watch. However, when it was all said and done, the Caps were defeated in the 7th round of the shootout, and lost the game, 3-2, to their archrivals. Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist for the visitors but Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was the game’s number one star thwarting 32 of the 34 shots he faced. Mike Green and Mike Knuble tallied for the Capitals, on the power play and shorthanded, respectively. After both Alexander Ovechkin and Kris Letang traded tallies to open the gimmick for their teams, Pascal Dupuis became the next shooter to score in the bottom of the 7th round. Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Knuble, Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault, and Green all failed to beat #29 before the Pens sent the Caps home slightly disappointed for Christmas. Washington’s record is now 20-12-5, good for 45 points, which puts them in a tie for first place in the Southeast Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won their tilt in a shootout against the New York Rangers on Thursday night. The Bolts have two games in hand on the Capitals. The Atlanta Thrashers, who lost to the Boston Bruins this evening, are two points behind both teams.
Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analyis of a game that certainly had a playoff feel to it, as confirmed by Penguins coach Dan Bylsma:
“You talk about the hype and the buildup and the rivalry and the puck drops and it’s exactly what the buildup is. Sometimes [games like these] are overbuilt but this was a playoff type of game and the building [was] rocking,” said the Pens bench boss on the contest and the atmosphere in the Verizon Center.
- The biggest positive of the night for Washington, in my book, was the play of both Green and his defensive partner Scott Hannan. Those two guys have struggled since Hannan was traded to the Caps from Colorado and the power play marker by #52 broke his own 14 game drought. He logged 34:03 of ice time adding eight hits, five blocked shots, and he also had six shots on net. Green also nearly won the game in OT but Fleury managed to cover the puck with his glove after #52 had deked the net minder to the ice and was about to slide the biscuit by him. Hannan was outstanding in his 27:09 of ice time and the duo finally played like the top pairing that the organization expected from them when they were put together after Jeff Schultz went down with a fractured thumb in the Toronto contest. Perhaps they are finally learning each other’s tendencies or getting comfortable playing as a duo? Whatever it was, those two guys were dynamite against Pittsburgh.
“That was his best game in a long time. He was good defensively and he jumped into the plays and made things happen offensively,” started Boudreau on Green, “We were talking in [the coaches room] and that is why we got him,” finished the Washington bench boss when I asked him about the strong play of Green’s defensive partner.
- In net, Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) made his first ever start against the Penguins and he was fantastic. #30 gave up Crosby’s super tip just 3:21 in to the game and 17 seconds into period three the guys in front of him did a Keystone cops routine by bumping into each other, knocking over the two time Calder Cup Champion net minder and allowing Chris Kunitz to score from the slot. In between the two tallies Neuvy stopped Evgeni Malkin on a penalty shot and thwarted Crosby on a breakaway. The young Czech net minder is 2-1-1 in this current run as the Washington starting goalie.
- The Capitals penalty kill was a major reason why Washington made it to the gimmick. The Caps killed off all five Penguins power plays and they also tied the game up with 5:29 to go on Knuble’s shorthanded marker off of a great feed from Laich. Last season when trailing, an opponents man advantage situation frequently resulted in another opposition tally, however, this season the Capitals are using the PK to stay in games and then use the energy generated from that unit to take back control of the play. The improvement of the shorthanded unit this season is one of the big positives to the first half of the 2010-11 season.
“PK did a great job. To get that goal in the third there on the PK that is huge. The system we played tonight on the PK and what Deano [assistant Coach Dean Evason] drew up for us, we executed it and we got the job done,” said forward Jay Beagle, who logged 10:44 of ice time, including 2:46 when Washington was shorthanded.
- Washington’s power play, however, was another story. While they did finally connect on a two man advantage in period two, they also failed to convert in the opening frame on a 109 second five on three. Overall the Caps were 1 for 6 on the PP and a big problem is the lack of puck movement. Like standing and dribbling gets you nowhere in basketball, the Caps players are holding on to the puck too long instead of moving it quickly and crisply to get the defenders and the goaltender scrambling around. Simply put, despite the fact that the Pens own the best PK percentage in the league (88%), Washington made it easy for their opponents to look good shorthanded on Thursday night. On the last couple of man advantage situations the Caps did do a better job of passing the puck faster and shooting more often, and if they do that, the power play will get hot again.
- The final tallies on power plays in this one was 6 to 5 in favor of the Caps but if you factor in the penalty shot then it is even-steven. The Capitals carried the play for much of the night and should have had a greater advantage in power plays but zebras Kelly Sutherland and Francois St. Laurent saw a completely different game, in some instances, and as is often the case, evened up the calls instead of sticking to officiating the contest correctly.
“We knew they were going to get [power plays]. I think we had one more power play than them which would have been the first time in 16 games that we had more power plays than they did. But we knew there were going to be penalties called against us because we knew there was never going to be that big of a discrepancy when playing them,” said Boudreau on the tendency of NHL referees to focus on the numbers of PP opportunities for each team instead of calling things as they play out.
The coach nailed it and if you ask me, shouldn’t a guy with a last name like St. Laurent be peddling men’s ties instead of badly refereeing hockey games?
- I am not sure what was going on with the playing surface but the ice along the boards adjacent to the Capitals bench seemed to have more bumps and holes in it than New York Avenue. As players attempted to carry the puck out of the zone on that side found out, the routine play was turned into a house of horrors and on several occassions the puck carrier overskated the biscuit. Overall I thought the surface, which I have deemed “Wizards Ice” because it seems that the Caps always play the night following a basketball game, prevented the Caps from some odd man rushes because they had to exit the “bad zone” two of the three periods and in overtime.
- Tom Poti was injured in period one and Boudreau termed him day-to-day. #3 only played 5 shifts (3:34) after hitting his head. As a result of Poti’s early exit the Caps had to play with just five defensemen for the rest of the game, but Karl Alzner said that is a situation that you have to deal with and move on from.
“It makes it a little bit tougher and definitely you run out of energy, especially if you are trying to match any sort of lines there then it gets more difficult. But that is how you have to play. You have to do it sometimes and it’s easier to keep yourself in the game if you are going every other shift but obviously we’d rather finish the game with six [defensemen],” said the 21 year old defenseman on the shortened bench after Poti’s head injury.
- Overall this was another step in the right direction for the Capitals and Boudreau said if they continue to play like they did on Thursday they will win lots of games. I asked Alzner about the mood of the players following the defeat in the skills competition.
“It’s the second best result we could have asked for. We played a pretty good game. It was low scoring, it wasn’t one of those run and gun games so we’re working on that. It’s nice that that is coming through a little bit but we obviously wanted to win and keep Crosby off the scoresheet as much as we could but that’s a tough guy to keep off so we did decent, but we can do better though,” finished #27, the Capitals 2007 1st round draft choice (5th overall).
Notes: Dave Steckel, who leads the NHL in faceoff percentage at 63.6%, was 13-4 on draws but overall Washington lost the battle at the dot, 37-34…Eric Fehr, who received top line minutes in the last period in Boston and in Ottawa on Sunday, started on a line with Ovechkin and Perreault but after one period was yanked off of it. #16 ended up getting only 9:49 of ice time but he did manage to fire four shots on net in that time…the tripping call on Ovechkin was downright awful and again I put the blame on that one on Wizards ice and bad zebras…Hannan went even on the night and was -8 coming into the game against Pittsburgh…Washington is 7-0-2 in its last nine regular season games against Pittsburgh…next up for the Caps, after two days off for the Christmas break, is a game in Carolina at 7pm on Sunday night against the Hurricanes.