Alex Ovechkin was tripped by Sidney Crosby in overtime without a call and shortly thereafter the Penguins crashed the crease to score, 8-7, and win a wild affair that ends the Capitals nine game winning streak.
The Caps led 3-0 early in the second period and Evgeny Kuznetsov had a chance to make it 4-0 on the power play, but Matt Murray somehow made a big save.
Then the play that changed the game occurred. Patrick Hornqvist, who is certainly not one of the cleaner players in the league, punched T.J. Oshie in the head in the left wing corner in the Caps end. After a Braden Holtby cover of the puck, a scrum broke out. Daniel Winnik and Hornqvist were sent to the box for roughing when Washington should have had a power play. Oshie went down the tunnel for evaluation, but would return.
That put the game at four on four, and with the Caps being in their third game in four nights against a more rested Penguins squad, Pittsburgh used their speed and some poor defensive zone play by the Capitals to make it 3-2.
Honestly, the Capitals were fortunate to be up 3-0, before then. The puck was bouncing their way while the Penguins had some tough luck on their chances. But the “puck luck” would totally swing the Pens way and they scored three more goals to go up, 5-3, and chase Braden Holtby in the middle frame.
At that point, you had to figure this one was over given how much hockey Washington had played recently, but Coach Barry Trotz’s crew battled back hard and tied it up at five when Brett Connolly tallied at even strength and then Lars Eller (2 goals, +3) scored shorthanded.
Another controversial play then occurred that went the home team’s way, once again. Hornqvist was crashing the net and fell over Winnik’s arm. He slid extra far into Philipp Grubauer and then whacked number 31’s pad while Evgeni Malking (3 goals) was notching what would ultimately be his hat trick tally. This sure looked like textbook goalie interference or at least incidental contact, and Trotz wisely challenged. But the NHL guys in Toronto wearing their Pens Stanley Cup t-shirts ruled “goal.” Guess you can’t fight city hall, eh?!
Pittsburgh would extend the lead to 7-5 in the final frame when Bryan Rust cross checked Karl Alzner from behind on the right wing boards and that allowed Conor Sheary to feed Crosby for what surely looked like the game clincher.
But credit the Caps, they fought back with a vengeance and Oshie backhanded the biscuit home to cut it to 7-6 with 10:31 to go on the power play. Eller would then tie it up on a rebound with 5:32 left and somehow this one was even up when Washington had looked dead and buried twice.
The game then went to overtime and the missed trip on Crosby led to the winning goal sequence.
Overall, this was a very good point for the Capitals. You can complain that they blew a 3-0 lead, but Washington was clearly running on fumes and showed resiliency to overcome the speedy Penguins and the atrocious work of Dan O’Halloran and Frederick L’Ecuyer. Fittingly, the Caps did have four power plays to just one for Pittsburgh, the first time in 10 games that has happened, and it was the first time in 10 games the Capitals have lost.
But it wasn’t the number of calls, it was the HUGE misses by the guys in stripes that mattered, but that’s hockey.
It hurts that the winning streak is over and the long stretch of not allowing an even strength goal went by the wayside, but as Coach Trotz often mentions, there are games on the schedule when you know you are at a big disadvantage and this was one of them. The Caps were on their third game in four nights while Pittsburgh was off on Sunday and recently had their bye week.
Still, the Capitals, who were missing John Carlson on the back end, had a lot of breakdowns in their game and I’ll attribute that to fatigue. The Penguins had numerous odd man rushes and you just can’t get into a track meet with them. Pittsburgh was missing Kris Letang, as well, so the Caps needed to play a simpler game of getting pucks deep and pounding a defense that really misses #58.
What is impressive, though, is the mental toughness and battle this Capitals team showed to rally from both two goal holes and force overtime. That standings point could be huge in the end and Washington went 2-0-2 in the regular season against the Pens. On home ice it was all Capitals and both games at the Igloo II were extra time affairs, so home ice will be important in the playoffs.
It sure looks like Washington, with the additions of Eller and Connolly (1 goal, +2), and the additional experience for guys like Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky (1 goal, 1 assist, +3), Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt have closed the gap on the Penguins. But there’s a long way to go and trades could still happen. I expect that Pens GM Jim Rutherford is not thrilled with his blue line and might try and make a move or two.
For Washington, now that they’ve stabilized the bottom six, it’s up to their top two lines to win the war in the spring over Pittsburgh. On Monday night, the Pens top six won the game. Ovechkin (two assists) was -4, Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal) went -3, and Kuznetsov (1 assist) was -2. It was Washington’s third and fourth lines that gave them a chance to win when they had the odds stacked against them, and they nearly pulled it off.
The Caps are now 29-9-6 (64 points) and are still five points up on the Penguins (PIT has a game in hand). They are two points up on the Columbus Blue Jackets, but Coach John Tortorella’s team has two games in hand.
There’s a long way to go in this season (38 games) and being healthy in the spring is the most important thing, but the Capitals are certainly a strong team and losing on Monday night was a glass “half full” defeat, in my book.
Notes: Shot attempts were 67-52 for Pittsburgh…faceoffs were 33 apiece. Jay Beagle was 9-7…Alzner was -3 in 17:55. It was not one of his better games and leaving his feet on the second Penguins goal is something he can’t do there. Better to stay up and cut off the pass to the guy behind him…Crosby had a goal and three assists and was +3, but he was aided by the guys in stripes on his goal and then the overtime tally…counting the playoffs, the Caps have now lost six straight games in Pittsburgh, four of them after regulation.