Victorious Venues – The Capitals have played the Penguins in three different venues in their last three visits to Pittsburgh, and, with Monday’s 1-0 win over the Pens, they’ve won all three of those games. Throw in a Feb. 6 win at Verizon Center, and Washington’s last four wins over the Penguins came in four different venues.
An injury-depleted Pens team outworked the Caps in the first 20 minutes of tonight’s tilt, outshooting the visitors 18-7 and earning three power play chances to Washington’s one. But the stellar netminding of Caps rookie Michal Neuvirth kept Washington even heading to the second.
“He was pretty good,” says Boudreau. “He was on top of his game. With [Semyon Varlamov] allowing one goal [Sunday], I hope that puts to rest [rumors of the Caps] going after a goalie.”
Caps winger Matt Bradley played the game the way it’s supposed to be played, throwing a hard hit on Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke as a subtle message/reminder for Cooke’s knee-on-knee clip of Caps captain Alex Ovechkin in the aforementioned Feb. 6 Washington win. The Bradley hit came midway through the middle frame.
Bradley was whistled for charging on the play, but Jordan Staal short-circuited a possible Pens power play by coming to Cooke’s aid and incurring a roughing call. Shortly after he was released from the box, Bradley was challenged by one of the many call-ups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Ryan Craig.
A former Hershey Bear who scored a career-high 15 goals as a member of the 2005-06 Tampa Bay Lightning, Craig had 29 goals (and five fights) in his first 120 NHL games. He has three goals (and nine fights) in his last 70 NHL games, and has spent most of the last four seasons in the AHL as a result.
Bradley accepted the invitation, and got the better of Craig in a spirited scrap. The game was still scoreless at that point, but more than one Capital would note that he was inspired by Bradley’s solid second-period sequence afterwards.
“He came up and asked me,” says Bradley of Craig. “I figured that would happen after I hit Cookie, but it’s just part of the game.”
Many of the press box onlookers believed Bradley’s bump on Cooke was nothing more than a clean, solid hockey hit. The officials thought otherwise, but it didn’t matter to Bradley.
“I don’t really care,” says Bradley. “I had my eye on [Cooke], but whatever happened, happened. I just wanted to give him a hard hit. I didn’t think it was dirty, but it’s the ref’s call.”
“Not just his fight,” says Boudreau of Bradley’s efforts on the night, “but he was hitting. I thought he had a tremendous game. He did things that energy guys on the fourth line are supposed to do. You don’t really think they’re going to score a lot of goals, but he did great things out there.”
While Bradley was still serving the fighting major, the Caps got their third and final power play chance of the game. They made it count when Alex Ovechkin loaded up a bomb of a shot that whizzed past Pens’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
“You could see it come around,” says Caps winger Mike Knuble. “I was coming around the net, and probably my right spot would have been to be in front of the goalie. But when you see him stepping into it like that, you just want to get out of the way. You don’t know where that thing’s going, really.
“It was a great shot, right under the bar. Fleury might have been screened a little bit seeing the replay.”
“That’s what he does,” says Boudreau of Ovechkin. “And that’s what he wasn’t doing in the first 45, 50 games. He wasn’t getting the shot off and it didn’t seem to have the mustard as that one. I didn’t even see it, on the replay at all.
“He’s been playing like that for the last two weeks and being a real leader.”
The Caps withstood the plucky Pens the rest of the way, and came away with the narrowest of shutout wins in their first-ever game at Pittsburgh’s nice, new barn, the Consol Energy Center.
“They had a good third,” says Knuble of the Penguins. “We kind of held the fort there. That’s something that we really would have struggled with in the past, but now it seems to be a little more commonplace.”
Ultimately, Washington found a way to win a game in which it was outworked and that was the difference between a winning and losing road trip.
“They worked hard that whole game,” says Bradley of the Penguins. “I thought we had a pretty good second, but they took it to us again in the third. I think we were lucky to get the two points tonight. Overall, I think they outworked us.”
Shake Some Action (Neuvy Says No) – The Capitals and Penguins met each other 79 times in the regular season from Oct. 29, 1991 to Feb. 5, 2011 without the Caps ever shutting out the Pens a single time.
Then again, none of the Caps goalies in those 79 games were referred to as “shaky” by a Penguins head coach in a cable television show.
After he blanked the Pens 3-0 at Verizon Center on Feb. 6, Neuvirth noted that he was inspired by Pens head coach Dan Bylsma’s characterization of him as a “shaky” goalie in HBO’s “24/7” series.
“Before the game,” said Neuvirth after the Feb. 6 game, “I remembered when he said that and I kind of looked at him during the warm up and told myself that I got to shut these guys out tonight.”
Neuvirth shut the Pens out again tonight. The Caps went 79 straight games without blanking the Pens, and now they’ve done so twice in as many games in a span of just 15 days.
“Early in the game when they were coming at us really hard and he wasn’t allowing any rebounds,” says Boudreau when asked if he knew early on that Neuvirth was at the top of his game. “When he can corral them and smothers them like he’s got Velcro on [him], that’s when I know Michal’s on top of his game. He was seeing everything. They had a lot of ‘in the crease’ kind of chances, and he was seeing everything. I knew he was going to be good.”
Neuvirth used some of the same words in describing his own performance.
“That’s huge,” says the Caps goalie. “When I’m on top of my game, my key is not letting [the opponent] any extra shots and to smother everything. I think I did a pretty good job of it tonight. I don’t think I left too many bad rebounds.
“It was a good game and great effort by the guys to protect the lead in the third period.”
Dating back to a 3-2 shootout loss to the Pens in Washington on Dec. 23, Neuvirth has now held the Pens off the scoreboard for 144 minutes and 43 seconds since a Chris Kunitz tally 17 seconds into the third period of that game. Neuvirth has stopped 75 Pittsburgh shots since the Kunitz goal.
I’m Eighteen – Monday’s win was Neuvirth’s 18th of the season, matching Jim Carey (1994-95) for the single-season franchise record for a rookie goaltender.
“They had a lot of shots,” says Neuvirth. “I made a few good saves and I got going. I was feeling good the whole game and I was seeing the puck pretty well. I think I played a good game.”
Triumphant Trip – There were a few Verizon Center press box denizens who had the Caps dead and buried heading into the team’s just completed five–game road trip. Some were foreseeing a two-point trip (or worse) and wishfully speculating on what sweeping changes would take place if that scenario actually unfolded.
The Caps head home with a 3-2 mark for the trip. All five games were decided by a single goal and in regulation. Washington won the two most important tilts of the trip, the last two, played on consecutive nights against Eastern Conference foes in towns that have proved to be troublesome for the Caps over the years.
Monday’s game in Pittsburgh marked the first time on the five-game trip that the Caps took a lead into the game’s final 40 minutes. They were down a goal before storming back to take a 7-6 win in Anaheim last Wednesday and even at 1-1 before coming away with a 2-1 win at Buffalo on Sunday.
Washington concluded the trip with its first sweep of games in back-to-back nights this season.
“You would think it would be in some situation where you’re a lot more comfortable as a team,” notes Knuble of the Caps’ first back-to-back sweep. “It’s been a long trip, a lot of miles covered, to the west coast and back. It’s one of those games that you’ve just got to pull out. You find a way to win it. We got one power play goal and we found a way to hold on. That’s how you make up ground in your season and how you make up ground in the standings.”
The Caps now trail fourth-place Pittsburgh by three points in the Eastern Conference standings and are a single point behind front-running Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division standings.
Got Another One – In Sunday’s win over the Sabres in Buffalo, Caps rookie center Marcus Johansson supplied the first game-winning goal of his NHL career when he notched the first power play goal – and first power play point – of his NHL career in the third period.
Johansson didn’t have to wait long to record the second power play point of his NHL career; it came on the Caps’ very next goal. Johansson put the puck on a tee for Ovechkin, so his second NHL power play point and first NHL power play assist also come on a game-winning goal.
“Marcus gave me a pretty good pass,” says Ovechkin. “I had lots of time to see what was going on and just fire it.”
Oh and by the way, it was Johansson who drew the tripping call on Pittsburgh center Joe Vitale that led to Ovechkin’s game-winning power play strike.
The 20-year-old Johansson now has two goals and two assists in his last five games.
Heating Up – Ovechkin now has nine goals and 17 points in his last 15 games. In the shorter term, he has three goals and six points in his last four games.
Atlantic Aptitude – Since losing 7-0 to the Rangers on Dec. 12, Washington hasn’t lost in regulation to an Atlantic Division foe. The Caps are 5-0-3 in their last eight against the Atlantic. Washington’s next three games all come against Atlantic opponents.
Good Killing – Washington’s penalty killing outfit has been mostly outstanding this season, but it had been nicked for a goal in each of its last four games for the first time since December. Coming into Monday’s game, the Caps had killed just 5-of-9 (55.6%) opposing power plays in their previous four games, the length of the road trip.
With no margin for error, the Caps killed all three Pittsburgh power plays on Monday and did not allow the Pens a power play chance in the game’s final 40 minutes.
Power Surge – For the first time since Nov. 7-11 and just the second time all season, the Capitals have scored a power play goal in three successive games. Washington is 3-for-9 (33.3%) with the extra man in its last three games.
Overall, three of the Capitals’ last five goals have now come on the power play.
Tough Twosome – Pittsburgh blueliners Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang were deployed almost exclusively against the Caps’ top line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble on Monday. The Penguins’ blueline pair did stellar work to keep the Caps’ top trio off the board at even-strength, and it was a treat to watch the heavyweights go head to head.
“They’re good checking defensemen,” notes Knuble. “Kris Letang has turned into a really good two-way player. He is obviously getting big assignments, playing on Ovi’s side. It was a little bit of a chess game, and we were able to get that one on the power play and it stood up.”
Letang finished the night with 27:45 in ice time, three shots on goal, two hits and four blocked shots. The ice time total was Letang’s second highest in a game this season and his highest in any regulation game. He also led all Penguins with 5:05 in power play ice time.
“In the past, he would be making mistakes defensively,” says Boudreau of Letang. “I thought that was the best game I’ve seen him play, ever. He did everything. Rushed the puck, held us in check, made great outlet passes. You can see he is coming of age.”
Orpik skated 23:38 on the night, including a team high of 3:51 in shorthanded duty. He had seven hits and three blocked shots.
Deal Gone Down – Defenseman Alex Goligoski skated with his Penguins teammates at Monday’s morning skate at the Consol Energy Center, but by the time the Caps took the ice there was a bit of a buzz circulating that Goligoski’s name was in play in the trade winds as the Feb. 28 NHL trade deadline approaches.
Sure enough, by the time we came back to the barn for the game, Goligoski was on his way to Dallas in exchange for defenseman Matt Niskanen and winger James Neal.
Caps radio play-by-play voice Steve Kolbe might have been the last media member to interview Goligoski as a member of the Penguins. Kolbe chatted up Goligoski in preparation for Monday’ night’s radio broadcast.
Hard Times in the Steel City – Of the 18 skaters Pittsburgh dressed for Monday’s game, Tyler Kennedy was the team’s leading goal getter with a dozen. He was followed by Cooke (11), Pascal Dupuis (10) and Letang (eight).
Pittsburgh’s main power play unit for Monday’s game featured Kennedy, Brett Sterling (three), Jordan Staal (six), Chris Conner (six) and Letang. The second unit was comprised of Dupuis, Michael Rupp (five), Cooke, Letang and Zbynek Michalek (none).
Kennedy leads that bunch with five power play goals this season. Letang has four, Staal two and Sterling one. None of the others has tallied an extra-man goal in the NHL in 2010-11.
Baby Pens Bonanza – The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL are having a strong season, currently holding a 10-point lead over the second-place Hershey Bears in the AHL’s East Division. That the Baby Pens have been able to maintain that lofty perch in light of the number of players they’re playing without lately is impressive.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins took the ice against the Caps tonight at Consol Energy Center, they did so with four of the top seven scorers from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton club in their lineup.
Sterling (third on the Baby Pens in scoring), Craig (fifth), Tim Wallace (sixth) and Vitale (seventh) were all dressed and in the lineup for the Penguins on Monday. Among the rest of the lineup, defenseman Brian Strait was recalled immediately prior to the game after the Goligoski trade and Conner has also done time in the WBS this season.
Furthermore, the Penguins had the other three of the Baby Pens’ top seven scorers on their injured reserve list for Monday’s game: Dustin Jeffrey (first), Nick Johnson (second) and Eric Tangradi (fourth).
By The Numbers – The Caps had 18 shots blocked on the night, and 10 of them came off Ovechkin’s stick. He fired 19 times, getting eight on goal and missing once … The Penguins outhit the Caps 37-27 on the night. Bradley (five) and Ovechkin (four) led Washington while Orpik led the Pens … Twenty-five of Pittsburgh’s 39 shots on goal came from five players who each tied for the Pens team lead on the night with five: Michalek, Dupuis, Staal, Maxime Talbot and Kennedy … Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom took 30 of the 69 face-offs in the game and Staal took 29 for the Pens … Tyler Sloan and Karl Alzner led the Caps with four blocked shots each. Michalek and Letang led the Pens with four.