NBC decided to put the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins on national television this Sunday afternoon ahead of the NFL Championship games and as usual, they got a dandy between two clubs that respect each other, but flat out can’t stand one another.
Sure there was no Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Jordan Staal due to injuries, but Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the top two picks in the 2004 NHL Entry draft, repsectively, put on an absolute show. Both had three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and finished plus three in the game, but it was Malkin who had the winner in overtime for Pittsburgh, in a 4-3 thriller.
Washington also played without center Marcus Johansson so coach Dale Hunter had to go to his first aid kit and bandage a lineup together. In the first period, it wasn’t working so well as the Pens raced out to a quick 2-0 lead prompting many of us on Twitter to surmise that it was going to be a long day for the Capitals.
But give Hunter credit once again for some great in game adjustments, the most important of which was putting Mathieu Perreault between Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and those three were the guys who got the Caps back in it, and also the lead for about six minutes in the third period. The Gr8 and Semin are super talents, but in hockey, to win, you need good centers who can get skilled wingers the puck. Center has been the Caps biggest problem this year (and it could be argued it was the last two years as well) and that issue is significantly magnified while Backstrom is out of the lineup. Throw in an ill Johansson and you get the disaster that was the first period.
Hunter’s first intermission moves panned out but also the players reached down and grabbed their you know whats and competed. Let’s be honest, Washington can’t stand to lose to Pittsburgh so they were going to do whatever it took to try and win. And they almost pulled it off too. Michal Neuvirth (23 saves) was very good in net despite taking the defeat.
Laich would play 27:57 and he, Karl Alzner (24:09), and Jeff Halpern (11:39) put on a penalty killing clinic late in period two, with the score knotted at two, when the Penguins had a 51 second two man advantage. Pittsburgh would score once on the power play to open the scoring but Washington killed all four other Pens manpower advantage situations.
Alzner had a strong game playing with Dennis Wideman (26:49) but the duo of John Carlson and Roman Hamrlik had an up and down contest drawing the Malkin line. Those two were on the ice for three of the four goals against while being on for two Caps markers. Hamrlik was the one who caused most of the problems as Pittsburgh exposed his weaker skating ability. #44 had been playing better under Hunter’s new system, but I felt that today was his poorest game since the former Caps captain took over and it was his mistakes that allowed Malkin to set up the game tying goal and then win this one in overtime.
At the end of the day though, this was an encouraging contest for Washington after an unbloggable loss in Carolina on Friday (3-0). Several guys stepped up, most notably Perreault and Laich, to try and fill the gap up the middle of the ice that is so glaring right now. Perreault certainly earned himself some more ice time with this performance and his offensive skill seems to be the best fit with Ovechkin and Semin right now with Backstrom out. Even if Johansson comes back on Tuesday, I’d still keep 85 there because he is more gifted offensively and the two big guns need a center who can handle and pass the puck.
So the Caps will play one more game on Tuesday, at the Verizon Center, against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins before taking the rest of the week away from the rink for the All Star Break. If they can find a way to win or at least get a point against a very good Boston team that would be huge.
The Caps need some rest to heal up, but they are still battling despite being undermanned, so today’s point in Pittsburgh was well deserved.
Notes: John Erskine, Cody Eakin, Jay Beagle, and Joel Ward all played less than 10 minutes of ice time. Hunter likes to go with the guys who are getting it done as evidenced by the large variance in playing time down the lineup…Semin and Perreault each had two points. 28 was +3 while Perreault went +2…James Neal had two goals for the Pens, both assisted by Malkin.