It is not how you start, it is how you finish.
On Tuesday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals came out sluggish and dug a 2-0 hole just 23:45 into this contest. The Caps were not skating at all and were not physically or mentally engaged in the game. As a result their gap control was terrible and the speedy Penguins took advantage of the space they were allowed on the ice.
But everything changed on the shift after the Peter Hornqvist tally, as Coach Barry Trotz shuffled the deck and put Mike Richards out with Tom Wilson and Jason Chimera to try and generate some much needed energy. Boy did it pay off as those guys were all over Pittsburgh and with #43 creating havoc in front, Richards notched his second goal of the season with a shot that Pens goalie Matthew Murray (34 saves) never saw just 39 seconds after it was 2-0. Afterwards, Richards said the goal belonged to Wilson, because he thought Willy tipped it, but regardless of that, the Caps were back in the game and they came to life with a vengeance.
For the final 35+ minutes this was mostly heavy hockey by the Caps. They were slow out of the gates due to no practice on Monday and it looked even worse with the Pens having played on Monday in a 6-0 rout of Arizona. In typical fashion, the Capitals started tilting the ice with their physical play and later in the period Justin Williams came down the left wing, kept his feet moving, and wrapped a puck around the right wing side of the Pens cage. Evgeny Kuznetsov had alertly positioned himself in front of the net and he whacked the biscuit home to tie the game up, with 3:57 left in period two, and totally ignited the Verizon Center crowd.
From there the Caps continued to pressure Pittsburgh. As expected, with the Pens having played the night before and Washington possessing a deeper and more physical team, the Capitals carried the play in the last 20 minutes and would win the game on the power play.
Evgeni Malkin high sticked T.J. Oshie in the neutral zone and that set up the #1 ranked unit in the league for a man advantage with 7:15 remaining. Pittsburgh, according to Matt Niskanen, became focused on shadowing Alex Ovechkin, and that allowed Nicklas Backstrom to feed #2 for three straight blasts from the point with traffic in front. As they say, the third time is a charm, and Niskanen’s rocket found the back of the cage. Following the game, the unselfish defensemen stated that Oshie had tipped the puck and deserved the goal.
So that’s two goals for Washington in which the official goal scorer said it wasn’t his goal. That’s a team that plays for each other and one that only cares about one thing, winning. This club has great team chemistry.
Winning is what they did as they held Sidney Crosby (1 assist) to no shots on goal and improved to 46-12-4 (96 points). With 20 games remaining they have yet to lose back to back tilts in regulation and the rest of the league remains in their dust.
As for Oshie, well he is one tough son of a gun. He took a knee on knee hit from Crosby and had to leave for a couple of shifts, he was trucked in the neutral zone by Ovechkin, and he also got clipped up high by Malkin to set up the winning power play sequence. You’d think a guy that was banged up that physically in this contest would spend the rest of the night staying on the perimeter, right? No, not Oshie, he was right there in front, doing what is necessary, to score or at least help score the game winning goal. Simply put, Oshie eats rocks for breakfast.
Wilson was outstanding in this contest and he was a big reason the game changed. #43 was flying around and scaring Penguins players while staying in control. He was simply unmanageable by the Pittsburgh defense for the final 35+ minutes.
All three Capitals goals were scored in front via hard work plays to get the puck to the prime scoring area while other teammates worked hard to battle in front to make the job for Murray, who played very well, extremely difficult.
When the Penguins did get a chance late, and Carl Hagelin had a golden opportunity with 33 seconds left, Braden Holtby (28 saves) came up with a big and sassy glove save to deny one of Washington’s biggest rivals. The Holtbeast now has 40 wins this season and is closing in on Martin Brodeur’s NHL record of 48 victories in a regular season.
Bottom line, though, this Caps team, that is still missing John Carlson, is deep and can wear their opponents down and agonizingly take hockey games from you.
They are a force to be reckoned with when they are focused.
The Penguins learned that, once again, on Tuesday night.
Notes: Mike Weber made his Caps debut and logged 12:24 on defense, paired mostly with Nate Schmidt. He blocked a team leading five shots…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time, at 24:26…Washington won the face off battle, 30-25. Backstrom was 11-9…the Caps had 32 hits to just 19 for the Pens…Washington outshot the Pens 37-30. Shot attempts were 64-58 for the Penguins. Washington dug a big first period hole in shot attempts with their poor play…the Caps will face Brooks Laich and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center at 7 pm. Philipp Grubauer will be in net. Daniel Winnik, who was acquired in the Laich trade, arrived in town on Tuesday and should be in the lineup on the fourth line against the Leafs.