Sunday, June 06, 2010

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Ten Games That Mattered: Washington at Pittsburgh, January 21st

January 21: Washington (31-12-6) at Pittsburgh (31-19-1)

The Result: Capitals 6 – Penguins 3

The Background: The Capitals and Penguins played four times in 2009-2010. Each game had its own argument as a game that mattered. There was the “Snovechkin” game of February 7th that the Caps won in overtime, 5-4, coming back from a 4-1 deficit. There was the March 24th game that saw the lead change three times before Jordan Staal tied things up for the Penguins, only to see Mike Knuble, of all people, get the game-winner in The Gimmick. There was the 6-3 win on April 6th in which the Caps scored early and late to finish the season sweep of the Penguins, something they had never done before (the closest they came was going 6-0-1 in 1984-1985).

However, this the 6-3 win on January 21st probably mattered more in the scheme of things than the three games that followed. The teams were fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, both with 31 wins coming into the game. Washington was coming off a tough 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. And while the Caps had won seven of their previous eight games, this was Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh. The last time these teams met, it was in one of the most deflating losses in the history of the Capitals, a 6-2 loss in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals.

If this game could not wash away the pain of that playoff loss, it could re-establish the fact that the Capitals were a club that could more than compete against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Why It Mattered: Any duel between the Caps and the Penguins begins with “Ovechkin vs. Crosby.” And to date, Crosby had the upper hand. In face-to-face meetings in the regular season, Crosby was 8-18-26 and won 11 times in 15 games, while Ovechkin was 8-10-18 and was on the high side of decisions in four of the 15 face-to-face contests. In their lone playoff meeting, Crosby finished the series 8-5-13, while Ovechkin was 8-6-14, but Crosby skated into the next round, not Ovechkin.

This game started off as if things would remain the same, Crosby getting the game’s first goal less than five minutes into the contest when Caps goalie Jose Theodore tried to collect the puck that was sliding down the ice into the corner. He misplayed the puck, deflecting it with his stick into the low slot, and Crosby swooped in to poke the puck into the net after a couple of tries while Theodore was still searching for it. But that was all the Penguins could do in terms of trying to put this one away early, despite some fine chances – Nick Johnson testing Theodore with a tough shot, then missing on a rebound attempt; Sergei Gonchar hitting the crossbar on a shot from the top of the offensive zone; Crosby failing to lift the puck over Theodore’s left pad from just off the post. The Caps struck for two goals sandwiched around the first intermission, Mike Knuble getting one of them on a rebound after Ovechkin dipsy-do’ed around defenseman Kris Letang, forcing goalie Brent Johnson to make the first save from the doorstep. Eric Fehr got the next one when he collected the puck after a shot that Johnson fended off into the corner. Fehr stepped out and around Johnson and appeared to get a shot off that defenseman Brooks Orpik knocked into his own net.

But the Penguins came back with a pair of their own – Nick Johnson and Letang making up for prior failures by getting the scores. Had the Penguins kept that lead going into the second intermission, they might have had enough momentum to carry the day. But with just over four minutes left in the period, Letang was in the middle of things again, this time taking a holding penalty drawn by Mike Knuble. Only 36 seconds later, the Caps made the Penguins pay for the error when Brendan Morrison walked the puck down the left wing boards, then passed it to Alex Ovechkin circling up into the middle of the zone at the Penguins’ blue line. Ovechkin stepped into one, wristing the puck past Brent Johnson to tie the game going into the third period.

The third period belonged to the Capitals. Tomas Fleischmann tok a lovely 40-foot saucer pass from Alexander Semin and scored on a breakaway, and Nicklas Backstrom added another goal before the period was three minutes old. Jose Theodore slammed the door on the Penguins, coming up especially big on a three-shot sequence midway through the period when the Penguins could have crawled back into the game. Ovechkin added an empty netter with 25 seconds left, and that was that.

The Takeaway: The Caps took an early punch in the nose – from Sidney Crosby, no less – and came back. They surrendered the lead to the Penguins and came back. They stood firm when the Penguins mounted a late charge and came back. Ovechkin led the team with a three point night (2-1-3) that would serve as a starting point for a season series in which he would score seven goals in four games against the Penguins. He did not score more goals against any other team in the league this season. Defenseman John Carlson recorded his first NHL point, an assist on Fleischmann’s goal.

It was the fifth consecutive win for the Caps in a streak that would eventually reach 14 games, and it was the first of four wins against the Penguins in which the Caps would score a total of 21 goals. After this game, the Caps would finish the season 22-3-7, and in only one of the ten losses would the Caps fall by more than one goal (a two-goal loss to Calgary on March 28th). This win, coming as it did in such decisive fashion against the defending Stanley Cup champion on their ice, cemented the Caps’ place as the best team in the league for the time being, no small thing in the scheme of games that mattered.


Jack Hazard said...

Where did you find the picture at the top of the post? Fantastic.

The Peerless said...

It was from the ESPN collection of photos from that contest, taken by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images