After a three game hiatus the Washington Capitals finally looked like the team that raced to a 40-18-5 record before their recent three game slide, and although the losing streak is now officially at four games, the Caps did play with more passion and energy in falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, today in a shootout at the Verizon Center. The Penguins, who added forwards Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin in recent acquisitions (and both are playing with Sydney Crosby), have now won six straight games since the Caps pasted them, 5-2, two weeks ago in DC. Washington did win the season series with the Penguins, going 3-0-1.
This game had a definite playoff feel to it with the Pens battling mightily to secure a position in the top eight of the Eastern Conference and the Caps trying to right a struggling ship. Both teams got goals in the first period with Pittsburgh taking the lead when defenseman Tom Poti got caught making a bad play up ice leaving Jeff Schultz alone to face Guerin and Crosby coming in two on one. Schultz, as a defenseman is instructed to do, tried to cut off the pass and let goalie Jose Theodore (19 saves on 22 shots) take the shooter. However, the savvy Guerin made a great pass to Crosby who quickly buried it past #60 to give the Pens first blood. Washington struck back just over eight minutes later when Nicklas Backstrom blocked Kris Letang’s attempted home run pass and #19 then deftly passed it behind his back to a streaking Alexander Semin who beat Fleury with one of the best backhanded moves you will ever see to tie the game up. The big downer for the Caps in the opening period was their inability to convert on three power play chances (including a four on three advantage for 1:57).
In the second period the torrid pace that was seen at the outset of this contest dissipated and the Penguins scored twice in just under three and a half minutes midway through the period to take a 3-1 lead. The first goal came on a four on three power play from Sergei Gonchar with Guerin parked directly in front of Theodore supplying a screen that allowed Gonchar’s wrister to find the upper right corner. Poti was the lone defenseman for Washington on the ice but he did no move Guerin out. Theodore shoved Guerin right before Gonchar’s shot, to no avail, and that shove clearly distracted Theo. Pittsburgh’s third goal was a bad play by Shaone Morrisonn who gave Guerin too much space and mistakenly went for an outside fake that allowed #13 to cut to the inside and fire one past Theodore. Morrisonn has to force Guerin wide in that instance and not give him a direct lane to Theodore. Fortunately for Washington, Pens defenseman Brooks Orpik was called for high sticking Mike Green and just under ninety seconds worth of Washington’s fourth power play was set to carry over into the third period.
The Caps needed just 29 of those seconds to cut this to a 3-2 game as the Great #8, Alexander Ovechkin, fired one past Marc Andre-Fleury (29 saves on 32 shots) off of a Green feed to get the Verizon Center crowd back in the game (Brooks Laich did a nice job distracting Fleury as well). Then just 49 seconds later Laich tied it up as Green and Dave Steckel stole the puck from the Penguins behind the Caps net and Steckel fired a long breakaway pass to Laich that sent #21 in alone, and after he almost lost the puck, Laich backhanded it off the left post and into the net for his 16th goal of the season and his career high 38th point (Laich got his 22nd assist of the year earlier on Ovechkin’s league leading 47th goal).
“I forgot our line was up, I didn’t hear Bruce [Boudreau] call out our line so [Tomas] Fleischmann came off and I just sat there and nobody hopped on and I heard somebody screaming my name so I jumped on and I was behind their defensemen and Dave [Steckel] made a great pass to me. I tried to relax going in on the breakaway and I almost threw the puck into the corner but then I was able to get it back and make a move and was able to score. At the time it was a big goal for us and unfortunately it doesn’t go towards a win but still, we’ll take the point,” said Laich on his goal and the game.
After the early Caps fireworks in the third period the game went back and forth and the Penguins received two power plays but Washington did an outstanding job of killing them. Both Fleury and Theodore made great saves to keep this game tied and #60′s best stop of that period was a glove save on Evgeni Malkin with 7:21 to go. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was complimentary of both Theodore and Fleury after the contest.
“He made the big save when we needed it, and that’s what you want him to do. Goalies are paid to save the puck and sometimes you can let two or three in and still be great, but in the third period with a 3-3 tie he made a tremendous glove save. And their guy [Fleury] did the same thing, and that’s what good goalies do – they rise to the occasion. I felt comfortable like, ‘Okay he’s going to be able to do that for us,’” said Boudreau.
After regulation ended both teams traded chances in OT before Crosby was the only one to score in the shootout (Semin, Viktor Kozlov, and then Ovechkin all were stopped by Fleury while Theodore stopped Letang) to give Pittsburgh their first win over the Caps this season. Crosby had a very good game (#1 star) and the Penguins fans who made it into the Verizon Center cheered him on but there were far fewer of them than in years past.
“It’s nice, we’ve got a few fans here ourselves but it seems like there’s a little bit less than there used to be. [The Capitals] are definitely a tough team to play against at home,” said Crosby.
Even though the Caps lost today this was a good day for Washington as they seemed to be getting closer to breaking out of their funk and Boudreau talked about Sunday’s effort improving on Thursday’s slightly improved play against Toronto (a 2-1 loss without Ovechkin and Poti).
“We played a good game; it was a great hockey game. To me it’s a 3-3 tie, as you know coaches absolutely hate shootouts when you lose. The difference in emotion if we score on a penalty shot after the first 65 minutes is played, you know the difference between everyone being euphoric and down a little bit. I think this was an uplifting game for us, by far the best of the last four,” finished Boudreau.
Notes: The Caps are now 40-21-6 good for 86 points and a 10 point lead over the Florida Panthers in the Southeast Division but Florida has a game in hand. Florida plays Pittsburgh at the Igloo on Tuesday night. Washington is in Nashville to take on the Predators on Tuesday night and after that they travel to Philadelphia for a Thursday game on Broad Street. Boudreau was asked about heading out on the road after going 3-5-1 at home during a stretch when the only road game they played was the 4-3 OT win in Boston on February 28th.
“I don’t know, we love playing at home we just haven’t been successful at home [lately]. I mean I think the change of scenery is more said than it is good. We are going to be going into a pretty hostile environment for a team that is in ninth place right now, looking to get into the playoffs. So, their sense of urgency is going to be really, really up there too. I mean I would rather play at home against Nashville than in Nashville. And Philly [Philadelphia]…”
More Notes: Washington falls to 3-4 in shootouts this season while Pittsburgh is 5-4. Dan Marouelli and Eric Furlatt were the referees today and as is typical in a Marouelli officiated game both teams had the same number of power plays (four each). I thought the zebras did a poor job today as the two of them missed a Malkin goaltender interference call in the third period as well as a BLATANT two handed slash by Kunitz on Green as time expired in regulation. In addition, the calls made at 8:30 of the third period (Letang, Donald Brashear and Matt Bradley all for roughing) were not accurate as there was no way Pittsburgh should have gotten a power play when Letang startd the whole incident with a slash after he was hit cleanly. As this was occuring I said to the Canadian TSN reporter next to me in the press box if he thought anyone would get a power play from the skermish and he said “No.” But Mariouelli and Furlatt gave Crosby and company a power play anyways, go figure. Because Poti was able to play, Tyler Sloan, who was on emergency recall from Hershey, did not. Michael Nylander, who has an upper body injury, also did not play for Washington while forward Petr Sykora was out for the Penguins with an injury. Green had two assists in a strong performance. As for any talk of the flu bug being the cause for the Caps poor play of late, that does not appear to be the case as only Theodore had it and Sergei Fedorov, who struggled through 14:58 of ice time today, is the only other one who is sick (#91 is battling a cold). Two other sources close to the team said everyone else is healthy so ailments weren’t the cause for the lack of energy and passion in the Florida and Carolina home defeats.
Stats and facts: The Capitals outscored the Penguins 9-1 in the third period of their four meetings this season, have scored at least one power-play goal in 15 of the last 18 games and are 31.4% in that time (22 of 70), recorded their 24th sellout of the season at Verizon Center, breaking the club record of 23 sellouts in a season set on two previous occasions (20 of the last 22 games have been sold out), and have lost four games in a row for the first time under Boudreau. Semin, who is starting to play well on a consistent basis once again, scored a goal for the sixth straight game.