Prelude To Classic Gets Less Than Classic Conclusion – One of the most compelling regular season hockey games of calendar 2010 was given an unfitting coda at Verizon Center on Thursday night. The Capitals and Penguins played to a 2-2 tie through 65 minutes. Pittsburgh picked up the extra point by winning postgame event. It goes in the books as a 3-2 Pittsburgh win.
“It was two really good teams going at it,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, “and we lost the skills competition.”
With these two teams on the slate for Jan. 1’s Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the hype meter was in the red well before the start of the game. And each of the 65 minutes of actual hockey that was played here tonight lived up to it.
“You talk about the hype and the build-up,” says Pens coach Dan Bylsma, “and the puck drops and it’s exactly what the buildup is. Sometimes [games like these] are overbuilt but this was a playoff type of game and the building [was] rocking.”
Washington had the game’s first six shots on goal, but it failed to cash in on an early power play and fell behind 1-0 when Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby deftly deflected a perfect point pass past Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth at 3:21 of the first. The goal came on Pittsburgh’s first shot of the game.
The Caps outplayed and outchanced the Penguins through the first 40 minutes, but had a hard time solving Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington had a 4-on-3 advantage for 2:12 of the first two periods and held a 5-on-3 manpower advantage for 2:39. The Caps also had 3:10 of 5-on-4 time to Pittsbugh’s 2:48.
Not until Mike Green roofed one over Fleury’s glove at 13:43 of the second – one tick after the Caps’ 5-on-3 became a 5-on-4 – were the Caps able to light the lamp behind the red hot (15-1-1 in his last 18 outings) Pittsburgh goaltender.
Pittsburgh played at home on Wednesday, taking a 5-2 decision on home ice over Florida. You’d figure the Pens to be the more fatigued team in the third, but that wasn’t the case.
On the first shift of the frame, Crosby pushed the puck low with one hand on his stick, and it bounced back out in front. It dribbled past sticks and legs and came to Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz just as Neuvirth was being knocked into the net. Kunitz backhanded it through the Caps’ goalie to give the visitors a 2-1 lead.
Pittsburgh seemed to draw energy from that tally. They drew three consecutive power plays in the third and four overall, counting a phantom tripping call on Caps captain Alex Ovechkin late in the second.
A Mike Knuble shorthanded goal – courtesy of a sublime Brooks Laich pass – evened it up at 2-2 late in the third and enabled the Caps to come away with a point.
“If they can play like that every night, I’ll be happy,” says Boudreau. “They had passion. We played, arguably right now – two losses in 20 games – the best team in the league and I thought we played them to a standstill.
“Whether it’s a moral victory or whatever, you’d love the two points of course. But I thought we played really well and it was one very hard-earned point.”
Gun Fire -- Green's goal was the first by one of Washington's "Young Guns" (Green, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin) since Dec. 6. The Caps had gone seven straight games without getting a goal from any of those players.
In a span of 275 games from the start of the 2007-08 season through that Dec. 6 game, the longest the quarter had gone without one of them scoring was three games, and that happened just once, in Nov. 2009.
The Caps came into Thursday's game with two straight wins without any "Young Gun" contributions. They've never won three in a row without getting a goal from those four since the start of 2007-08, Backstrom's rookie season.
Comeback Caps – Tonight’s game marked the sixth time in the last nine regular season meetings between Washington and Pittsburgh that the Penguins scored the game’s first goal. But it was only the second time in those nine games that the Penguins came away with two points, and they needed the shootout to do so on both occasions.
Washington is now 7-0-2 in its last nine regular season meetings with the Penguins despite trailing at some point in seven of those nine games and trailing by two or more in three of the nine.
Green Game – Green had, by all accounts, a terrific game. He scored his first goal in 15 games (since Nov. 14), logged 34:03 in ice time (two seconds shy of his regular season single-game career high), led the Caps with six shots on goal, led the Caps with eight hits, led the Caps with five blocked shots and almost won it for Washington in overtime only to have Fleury clamp his glove on the puck just as it was about to cross the goal line.
“I thought it was his best game in a long time,” says Boudreau. “He played good defensively and yet he jumped into the play and made things happen offensively. You could see his reaction when he scored, it was like the weight of the world came off his shoulders and he looked like a different guy after that.”
Oh, and Green also led the Caps in hits absorbed with seven.
After playing a lot of minutes and a lot of hard minutes, Green and his mates now have two days off before the Caps resume play with a Sunday game against the Hurricanes in Carolina.
“By the end of the game you get pretty tired with the amount of minutes being played,” admits the Caps defenseman. “Also, it’s sometimes easier to play when you are always on the ice, you just get more into the flow of things and you see things, and you create things.”
Coming Around – Caps defenseman Scott Hannan skated 27:09, easily the most he has logged since joining the Caps. Part of the reason for his heavy workload was that blueliner Tom Poti was lost for the night after five shifts totaling 3:34 in the first. Poti did not return after absorbing an Evgeni Malkin high-stick behind the Washington net.
Hannan led the Caps with 4:39 in shorthanded ice time and was second among Washington skaters with 22:14 in even-strength ice time.
Boudreau believes it was likely Hannan’s best performance since coming to the Caps in a Nov. 30 deal with Colorado.
“That’s why we got him,” says Boudreau of Hannan. “To play like that”
Poti is “day-to-day, right now,” according to Boudreau.
“He got a hit in the head, as I’m sure you saw,” says Boudreau. “But we don’t know. Day-to-day.”
Going For The Goals – Tonight’s Capitals-Penguins game was the first in the last 12 meetings between the two teams in which one or both clubs did not score four or more goals.
The last Caps-Pens regular season tilt in which one club or the other did not score four times was a 2-1 Pittsburgh win at Verizon Center on Oct. 20, 2007. That game was played about a month before Boudreau took over behind the Caps’ bench.
Toques For All(most) – Every Capitals skater and most members of the Penguins sported Winter Classic toques for the pre-game warm-up for Thursday’s game.
Pittsburgh’s Crosby and Matt Cooke were the only Penguins who did not don the headgear; they wore helmets.
Streak Stopper – The Caps had six power plays to Pittsburgh’s five on the night, marking the first time in the last 16 meetings (including playoffs) between these two teams that Washington had more power plays in a game than did the Penguins.
During those 16 contests, Pittsburgh now has 82 power play opportunities to Washington’s 50. Despite the disparity, the Caps are 10-4-2 in those contests.
Kid Killers – Having to kill four consecutive Pittsburgh power plays over the game’s second half, Boudreau entrusted several of his youngest players with the task of killing the penalties. John Carlson (3:31), Karl Alzner (2:56), Jay Beagle (2:46) and Marcus Johansson (2:18) all logged significant shorthanded ice time and performed well.
“They deserved it,” says Boudreau. “They did a good job on the PK.”
Short Stuff – Knuble’s shorthanded strike was his first during the regular season as a member of the Caps and his first during the regular season since March 1, 2008 when he was a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. Knuble did have a shorthanded goal for Washington in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs against Montreal.
The Long And Short Of It -- Knuble’s goal was the 28th of his career against the Penguins. He has more goals against the Pens than any other active NHL player.
Green’s goal was the first of his regular season NHL career against the Pens, a span of 16 games.
Road Warriors – Pittsburgh has now won eight of its last nine games on the road.
Streaking – Crosby’s goal was his 23rd in as many games, and it also pushed his scoring streak to 23 straight contests. That’s the longest scoring streak in the league since Quebec’s Mats Sundin had a 30-game run in 1992-93.
By The Numbers – Nicklas Backstrom led all Caps forwards with 25:11 in ice time, the most he has logged in a game this season … David Steckel was 13-for-17 (76%) in the face-off circle … Ex-Hershey Bear Deryk Engelland led the Pens with five blocked shots in just 8:54 of work … Brooks Orpik led the Penguins with nine hits … Letang led the Pens with 27:26 in ice time.