It wasn’t textbook hockey and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Washington Capitals found a way to get a win over their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night. Tomas Vokoun turned in a superb goaltending performance stopping 30 shots and Jason Chimera continued to march toward a career high in goals by notching the only tally in a 1-0 Caps victory, his 14th of the year.
With so many top players out of the game due to injury (Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Jordan Staal, and Kris Letang) combined with the short turnarounds these two teams faced (Caps took the redeye back from LA on Tuesday morning while the Pens played Tuesday night), it was no surprise that the game lacked energy and intensity in the first 40 minutes. The Penguins actually carried much of the play getting 10 more shot attempts and holding a 20-12 advantage in shots on goal. But the only thing that mattered was the scoreboard as Chimera scored after Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern forced Evgeni Malkin into a turnover at the Washington blue line.
Under coach Dale Hunter, the Capitals are focused on limiting or even better, eliminating, odd man rushes and although the Penguins had the shots advantage, they didn’t get any odd man breaks. The Caps did, and Chimera was able to go in one on one on Marc Andre-Fleury (19 saves) and he beat him with a quick shot. Washington’s 1-2-2 defense was mostly effective at keeping Pittsburgh to the outside and when the Penguins were able to penetrate it through the first two periods Vokoun was a wall in net.
In the third period the Caps found some energy and dominated the first 16 minutes. Alexander Ovechkin (0 points) was all over the ice setting up his teammates for chances and getting some of his own, but Fleury was brilliant to give his club a chance. Even though Pittsburgh basically threw the kitchen sink at the Caps in the final four minutes, the uptick in effort in that final frame was really needed from Hunter’s crew. In the previous two games against the Pens, which saw the teams split one goal contests, Pittsburgh was the more dominant team. So it was imperative for the Capitals to take over at that point, and again, if not for Fleury, Washington wins easily.
Still of concern to me though, is the Capitals struggles to find consistency coming out of their own zone. Clearly with #19 out the biggest weakness for Washington is up the middle of the ice. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Jeff Halpern, and Mathieu Perreault were tonight’s pivots and in my opinion, none of them are currently first or second line centers. Compounding the center problem is the wingers are making poor decisions with the puck which is leading to too many turnovers. Part of the issue for the defensemen are the forwards are simply not doing the little things to help them get the puck out and going in transition. It is a situation that led to numerous breakdowns out in California and the only way to fix the center/winger problem this year is a trade (or two) by General Manager George McPhee.
The Caps are clearly a different team at home and they’ve won seven of their last eight at the Phone Booth, outscoring their opponents 28-13. Fortunately for them they have three more games at the Verizon Center over the next six days with the Lightning on Friday, the Hurricanes Sunday, and the Islanders on Tuesday night. Wednesday night’s win puts the Caps in just eighth place in the Eastern Conference so it is very important that they rack up more points on this stay in DC. The Capitals have struggled mightily on the road and they still have four games scheduled against the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, who look even better this year than last. So it isn’t going to get any easier schedule wise for the Caps after the next three tilts.
But for tonight, a win over Pittsburgh has to feel good, no matter how they got it. Good goaltending is the most important thing in hockey and Vokoun seems to be getting into a groove (I don’t put the left coast losses on him, at all). Now they just need to get the entire squad playing like they did for most of Wednesday’s third period on a more consistent basis.
Notes: Matt Hendricks only played 7:44 but had one of his better games of the season with a fight win over Craig Adams and a post hit…the Caps won the facefoff battle, 25-20, and Jeff Halpern went 10-2, including several big defensive draws late in the contest…the Penguins didn’t get a power play all night while Washington went 0 for 2 with the man advantage…Malkin was 3-11 on faceoffs…Ovechkin had 4 shots on net and 3 hits…Backstrom was put on IR retroactive to last week.