The Washington Capitals returned to the friendly confines of Verizon Center on Tuesday to take on their archrival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that was one of the surprises in the NHL in the early going, and not in a good way. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were as prolific as ever, but the Penguins were having trouble getting scoring from anyone else. James Neal, who notched his fourth goal of the season in the last meeting of these teams on Hallowe’en, has had one goal since. Chris Kunitz came into this game working on a ten-game streak of his own without a goal. Pascal Dupuis has had success chipping in on Crosby’s goals (Crosby entered this game with 12 goals, seven of them since these teams last met), but has had only one of his own over his last dozen games.
The game started with the Penguins trying to make a statement with early pressure on Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth. They were not able to maneuver a puck around or through him, though, over the first half of the period. It was as the period approached the midway point that the Penguins then committed an unforced error. Paul Martin was penalized two minutes for interference when he held up Joel Ward trying to chase a puck he chipped into the corner in the Penguin end.
The Caps made the Penguins pay for the mistake at the 9:22 mark when Alex Ovechkin faked a slap shot from the left wing circle and passed the puck to Nicklas Backstrom at the edge of the right wing circle. With the Penguins positioning themselves to defend an Ovechkin drive, Backstrom was uncovered and redirected the slap-pass into the net behind Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Caps the early lead. That would be the extent of the scoring in the first period, the Caps holding a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard and a 9-8 edge in shots on goal.
The second period unfolded as a replay of the first when the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik took a double-minor for high sticking Brooks Laich at the 3:48 mark of the period. The Caps converted on the first-half of the four-minute man advantage when John Carlson fed a wrist shot from the top of the zone through a clot of bodies in front of Fleury to put the Caps up by a pair at 5:18.
Pittsburgh killed off the second half of the Caps’ man advantage, and it seemed to restore some momentum for the visitors. The Penguins gradually tilted the ice toward the Caps’ end of the rink, and it paid off late. Craig Adams forced Caps’ defenseman Dmitry Orlov into a turnover with hard forechecking pressure behind the Caps’ net. Orlov coughed up the puck, which slid out to forward Joe Vitale who was skating in to support Adams. Vitale found himself with the puck in open ice just to Neuvirth’s left, and Vitale banged it in before Neuvirth could prepare himself for the shot.
The goal seemed to wake the Capitals up, though. Barely a minute later the Caps returned the favor of hard forechecking pressure in the Penguin end, and Joel Ward picked Matt Niskanen’s pocket, poking the puck along the end wall to Jason Chimera. From behind the net to Fleury’s right Chimera took a hit from Ben Lovejoy as he was centering the puck for Brooks Laich. The Capital forward did not get a clean whack at the puck, but got just enough of it to send it on net. The pace of the shot handcuffed Fleury, and the puck slid between his pads, restoring the Caps to their two-goal lead just before the second intermission.
For the first half of the third period, it was the Caps’ turn to frustrate the Penguins with forechecking, and when the Pens were able to move the puck up ice Washington did a good job of preventing scoring opportunities. Karl Alzner and John Carlson were especially effective in shutting down the Sidney Crosby-Chris Kunitz-Pascal Dupuis line, one that would not record a point in this game. Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik were equally effective in containing Evgeni Malkin, who would also finish this game without a point.
The Caps’ efforts were rewarded in the 13th minute of the period when Mathieu Perreault knifed between two Penguins to flick a rebound of a Jack Hillen shot past Fleury for the Caps’ fourth goal. That one seemed to take the remaining wind out of the Penguins’ sails, although the visitors would get one back with under three minutes left when Brandon Sutter wristed a puck past Neuvirth from between the hash marks to close out the scoring.
Capitals 4 – Penguins 2