Two straight games against elite Eastern Conference opponents, two dominant wins for the Washington Capitals. They followed a 5-2 win over the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning Friday night with a 3-0 at win over the arch rival Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center on Super Bowl Sunday.
“We came back off the break and we didn’t think we played very good against Montreal,” Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We were on top of our game. When they (the Capitals) play that way and they’re committed, it’s a great team effort.”
Brooks Laich kicked off the scoring in the first period with the type of hard-nosed goal fans in Washington have been longing to see more of. Laich was on Marc-Andre Fleury’s doorstep to collect a rebound off John Erskine’s point shot and trickle it under the pads to put the Capitals ahead late in the first.
Mike Knuble scored what appeared to be another strike early in the second but the goal was washed out when Matt Hendricks was called for goalie interference. The replay showed that he was pushed into Fleury but instead of going ahead 2-0 the Capitals went shorthanded. However, Marcus Johansson soon scored shorthanded with five seconds remaining on the Hendricks penalty. He knifed into the zone 2-on-2 and sent a well-placed backhand through traffic which caught Fleury off-guard and put the Capitals ahead by two.
“The puck bounced from their D and I got it,” Johansson said. “Stecks (David Steckel) did a good job going to the net and I think Fleury didn’t see the puck coming. It’s a little lucky…”
The Pens killed off three Caps power plays and experienced a modest surge in offense throughout the rest of the period, putting the last six shots of the frame on the board. Still, the Capitals were disciplined in their defensive zone coverage and limited Pittsburgh’s second chances to practically nothing.
“We took our foot off the gas a little bit and they (the Penguins) got a little but of a push,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “When you have a lead the tendency sometimes is to try and make nice plays and get more points. We came back in the intermission and we have a lot of guys that are thinking the right way right now. We all just focused back in together and turned it up again.”
From that point on, the Capitals clamped down into their defensive shell and, while the Penguins spent a lot of time in the offensive end, they were never able to break through. Knuble finished the game off with an empty-netter to finalize the scoring and pull the Caps to within a point of the Lightning in the Southeast.
As expected, the game featured its fair share of grit and sandpaper. The Penguins sent Tim Wallace after David Steckel in the third presumably in retaliation for the hit that led to Sidney Crosby’s concussion in the Winter Classic. While there didn’t appear to be any intent on the Steckel-Crosby hit, one can hardly blame the Penguins for seeking some form of retribution.
Later in the third, Matt Cooke appeared to stick his knee out and tripped Alex Ovechkin which led to some punches being thrown and a two minute minor for Cooke.
Odds and Ends:
– Michal Neuvirth earned one of the easiest shutouts a goalie can hope for. In making 22 saves, most of them were on shots from the perimeter. His teammates did a great job blocking shots. Those that did get to the net were largely harmless, and when there were rebounds the Caps had their men tied up and didn’t allow the Penguins to get a stick on the loose puck.
– Mike Green took a Brooks Orpik slapper off the ear at the end of the first period and did not return. Credit the other five Capitals defensemen, who performed very well in his absence. Perhaps it’s an encouraging sign that Green was giving post-game quotes in the locker room.
“You’re always concerned (after a puck to the head),” said Boudreau. “There’s a lot of stitches in the ear. He’s day-to-day.”
But of course. Hasn’t Alex Semin been day-to-day for five weeks now? Also, the ice time leader for both teams with Green out of the lineup – John Carlson with 27:46. It’s amazing how valuable he is to the Caps so early in his career.
It’s unclear what to make of the Capitals. At times they look lost offensively, uncommited defensively and likely to lose in five games to any playoff team. Then there are games like today’s, and games like Friday night against the Lightning, in which they’re in total command and look ready for a deep playoff run.
The only certainty in Washington is that we won’t know how good this team is until after the trade deadline and perhaps even after the regular season, but it’s encouraging the way the Caps were able to rise up and beat two excellent opponents. For a while, many were starting to wonder if they were still capable of it.