No Sidney Crosby, No Evgeni Malkin, No Mike Green, No Tom Poti, No Paul Martin, etc..it doesn’t matter, it’s the Capitals and Penguins and these two teams despise each other so everyone knew that the VERSUS game of the week was going to be can’t miss action on Monday night, and both teams delivered. Michal Neuvirth, who was called “Shaky” by Pens Coach Dan Bylsma back in December during the HBO 24/7 series, stopped 39 shots to blank the Penguins for the second straight game. I imagine the Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup winning coach is regretting ever uttering those words now because Neuvy OWWWNNNSSS the Pens!
The victory for Washington, which completes a 10 day road trip at 3-2, gives them a 3-0-1 record against their archrivals this season and improves the team to 32-19-10 (74 points). They trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by a single point in the Southeast Division race but the Bolts have two games in hand.
Here are the highlights and analysis from an intense hockey game that was decided by an Alexander Ovechkin power play goal:
– The Caps won tonight, but let’s be honest, they did not play very well overall. They were severely outworked by what some may call an AHL team in the first period and as a result were shorthanded three times to just one for Pittsburgh in that stanza. In the second frame they came out and took the play to the Penguins and grabbed the lead on Ovechkin’s rocket. Washington had the better personnel on the ice tonight with all of the injuries for both teams but hard work will even things up quickly, and that is what happened on Monday night. In the third period, the Pens outshot the Caps 14-3, but many of those were from the perimeter as the Capitals were employing their defensive scheme that is working and frustrates the opposition. Overall the shots were 39-24 in favor of Pittsburgh, with the Caps winning the middle period, 14-7 and 1-0 on the scoreboard, which was the final tally.
– As I mentioned above, the Capitals had the better talent with guys like Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom on the ice. The Great #8 turned in a hard working performance while the other two did not play well. Backstrom did have a big shot block in the closing seconds but he just doesn’t look like the strong on the boards and confident #19. I wonder if that shoulder injury he suffered last spring is still a factor or perhaps it is holding back his ability to gain upper body strength because he just doesn’t look like the same elite player? I am a big Backstrom fan and I’d like to be wrong on that analysis and hope that #19 is simply saving himself for the playoffs, but still, his recent play is a concern for me right now. As for Semin, I am not sure he broke much of a sweat in 17 minutes of hockey. He routinely turned the puck over in the offensive zone with too many moves and he was not physical at all along the wall like he can be when he puts his mind to playing hockey.
– But when Neuvirth is playing as well as he did tonight, it doesn’t matter. #30 was outstanding and he controlled the Penguins shots giving up very few rebounds. His positioning was superb as well. In addition, his defensemen were very good in front of him by letting their net minder see the shots or if that was going to fail, blocking them. I thought Jeff Schultz, Scott Hannan, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson were really good on the back end tonight and they had to be. Each played over 21 and a half minutes as Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau wisely did not put the John Erskine and Tyler Sloan duo out too often (played 12:12 and 11:29, respectively).
– Up front Boudreau got a really solid game from rookie Marcus Johansson, who had the first assist on the Ovechkin power play tally (Mike Knuble had the other helper). MJ90, who is only 20 years old, will occassionally get taken off the puck fairly easily due to his youth and lack of size. However, he is finding a way to fight through that and make a difference. He is a guy who the Caps bench boss is not afraid to put out in his own zone in a close game, which the same cannot be said for Mathieu Perreault (only 8:09 of ice time, but he did get banged up early on too in this one). I don’t think Johansson is a 2nd line center right now and certainly not the guy there for the playoffs, but he can be effective on the 3rd line, provided he still has something left in the tank after this long rookie regular season, which is his first on North American rinks (Sweden has larger rinks and therefore, less contact).
– Boudreau made a very wise move using his timeout with just over 16 minutes left in the third period as his club was running around in their own end and had just iced the puck. After that the Capitals gave up some shots, but not many quality chances as they were content to get the puck to the red line and dump it deep. With that strategy a depleted Penguins lineup had to bring it the length of the ice to score, and they couldn’t do that leaving the fans at the CONSOL Energy center with nothing to cheer for on the evening, other than perhaps a Ryan Craig-Matt Bradley fight, but from my vantage point, #10 defeated the Pens call up in the bout. Craig went after Bradley after the Caps winger absolutely PASTED cheap shot artist Matt Cooke into the right wing boards in period two.
– In summary, this was a win at the end of a long road trip that solidifies the Capitals as a playoff team. Now it is all about positioning in the standings as well as waiting to see what General Manager George McPhee will do to improve the squad before next Monday’s trade deadline (2/28 at 3pm).
Notes: The Caps lost the face off battle 36-33 (Backstrom 13-17)…the Caps thwarted all three Pittsburgh power plays and scored on one of their three. However, before the Great #8’s laser, the Pens had two good shorthanded chances, including a Jordan Staal breakaway…DJ King was a late addition to the lineup because the scrappy Matt Hendricks was out sick (thanks to the awesome WashingtonCaps.com beat writer, Mike Vogel). King played only 4:25 but on one of his early shifts, he and his linemates at the time, Dave Steckel and Bradley, had two good chances to score…Ovechkin had 8 shots on goal, 10 that were blocked, and he threw four hits…the Pens traded d-man Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars today for winger James Neal and blue liner Matt Niskanen. I give the Penguins a strong edge in that move…next up for the Caps are the New York Rangers on Friday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center. The Rangers are 2-1 against Washington this year with their last victory coming right before the All Star Break in the gimmick.