It was a workman like effort at Verizon Center last night, punctuated by opportunities seized and capitalized on. Coupled with sturdy defense and effective goaltending, it was just the ticket to make their fans happy when the final horn sounded.
Well, Pittsburgh Penguin fans, anyway.
The Penguins rode a two-goal night from Chris Kunitz and a three-point night from Sidney Crosby, along with a 31-save effort from backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff to a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center last night.
It started poorly for the Caps just 46 seconds into the contest when Zatkoff turned away a good scoring chance by Eric Fehr off a Jason Chimera feed in the first half minute. The Penguins would then collect the puck along the right wing wall, Lee Stempniak beating Chimera to a loose puck. Stempniak chipped the puck up to Sidney Crosby who found Kunitz on the opposite wing in front of the Capitals’ bench. Kunitz blew by Mike Green as if it was a skating drill and broke in alone on goalie Jaroslav Halak. A flip of a backhand later, and it was Kunitz recording his 30th goal to make it 1-0, Penguins.
The Caps were then in catch-up mode the rest of the night. Fehr did some of the catching up by tying the game less than three minutes after the Kunitz goal. Fehr got it started when he picked up a loose puck near the Capitals’ blue line and sent it up to Joel Ward at the Penguin blue line. When Ward was picked up by Matt Niskanen, Jason Chimera followed up and took the puck. As this was going on, Fehr had circled all the way back on the weak side of the play and found an opening to the Penguin net. Chimera found him ahead of Taylor Pyatt, and from the low edge of the right wing circle he beat Zatkoff before the goalie could slide across, tying the game at a goal apiece.
Less than a minute later, the Penguins had their lead back. This was all Crosby. First, he drew a slashing penalty on Nicklas Backstrom to put Pittsburgh on a power play. Eleven seconds later he converted a pass from Evgeni Malkin to one-time a shot from the right wing circle past Halak’s glove, and it was 2-1.
That did it for the scoring in the first period, and it was quiet for much of the first half of the second period. Then it was the Caps’ turn to convert a power play. With Joe Vitale off for tripping Troy Brouwer, the Caps got a break. Nicklas Backstrom took a pass from Brooks Laich at the far edge of the right wing circle and hit the start button on the power play. Backstrom circled out to the faceoff dot, then threw the puck at the net looking for a Laich tip-in. The puck hit defenseman Rob Scuderi, instead, and found its way past Zatkoff into the back of the net to tie the game for a second time.
It would be the last time. In the 13th minute of the period it was Kunitz again. It was a simple case of speed. At 7:25, Scuderi collected the puck at the left wing wall in his own end and fired it across to Matt Niskanen. From the left wing circle Niskanen sent the puck up to Evgeni Malkin outside the Caps’ blue line. Malkin touch-passed the puck to Crosby steaming down the middle. Crosby left the puck for Malkin who one-timed a shot at Halak. The shot was not handled cleanly, and Halak left a rebound to his right. Kunitz beat Backstrom to the loose puck and stuffed it home to give the Pens the lead. The entire sequence took five seconds to complete with every Penguin touching the puck on the play against a passive Capitals defense. Game.
-- Adam Oates is now 0-6-0 against the Penguins and has been outscored 24-11 in the process. This is akin to the head coach at Michigan losing six straight times to Ohio State or the manager of the New York Yankees losing six straight times to the Boston Red Sox. It does not sit well with fans.
-- Special teams have killed the Caps in this series in the Oates era, specifically the penalty killing. The Pens got a power play goal last night, making it five out of six games over the last two seasons in which they recorded at least one power play goal. The Caps are 11-for-19 (57.9 percent) killing penalties against the Penguins in their last six contests.
-- The 20 shots allowed to Pittsburgh was the third time this season the Caps allowed an opponent 20 or fewer shots. They allowed the Minnesota Wild 11 shots in a 5-3 loss on January 4th and 17 shots to Buffalo in a 2-1 Gimmick loss on December 29th. This loss makes the Caps 0-2-1 in these low-shot games.
-- The Caps Corsi-ed and Fenwicked the crap out of the Penguins last night – 58.6 percent Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations and 64.3 percent Fenwick-for percentage. Ah, but here is the difference… Crosby: 1-2-3, Kunitz: 2-0-2, Malkin: 0-1-1 versus Ovechkin: 0-0-0, Backstrom: 1-0-1, Green: 0-0-0. Their skill guys got results, the Caps’ skill guys did not.
-- The Caps even got shots from the guys you want shooting the puck. Four shots from Ovechkin, Backstrom (his highest shot output in more than a month), Penner, and Fehr. Three each from Green, Carlson, and Chimera.
-- It was the one shot that did not count for Fehr that sunk the Caps in the end. The shot that rang off the pipe that was going top corner over Zatkoff’s blocker that would have tied the game and perhaps earned the Caps a standings point they might desperately need down the road. If “if only’s” were nickels, this team would win the lottery.
-- Little things… Crosby beat Eric Fehr in the faceoff circle, 5-1; he beat Nicklas Backstrom, 3-0; he beat Brooks Laich, 2-1; he beat Marcus Johansson, 4-2; all on his way to winning 14 of 19 draws.
-- Backstrom did win his share of faceoffs, though. He was 6-for-8 in the offensive zone. Overall the Caps were 12-for-16 on offensive zone draws (you wonder how they lost to this team, or at least how they could not score).
-- John Carlson: 5:06 in power play time. Mike Green: 1:16 in power play time. We think we can say the torch has been passed as far as the power play quarterback of choice is.
-- Evgeny Kuznetsov… ten minutes and change, two shots on goal, one blocked shot, 1:10 on the second power play unit. Consider his feet now wet.
In the end, the better team won, but they were not the better team. The difference was in no small part passive defense. We would consider the brain cramp by Mike Green on the Kunitz goal “passive” defense in that he looked as if he was locked up considering his options. Certainly on the second Kunitz goal the Caps just kept backing off and backing off, allowing the Penguins an unimpeded romp with speed through the neutral zone. If you look at the two even-strength goals the Penguins scored, the combined time it took them to put the puck in the net after they took possession of the puck was 11 seconds. Even on the Crosby power play goal the defense on Crosby’s side of the ice did not try to close time and space when the puck was rotating to Crosby.
What it meant was that the Penguins could take advantage of opportunities with their skill guys. It hardly mattered that the rest of their roster was dormant to the point of irrelevance. That is why we are not all that impressed with the Penguins. They are weak once one gets past the name players on their roster, hardly capable of mounting much offensive pressure and not making it up with shut down defense (the 33 shots for the Caps tied their high for a game since getting 35 against woeful Buffalo in an extra time game six weeks ago).
Ah, but that leaves us with the Caps, who did what they could, but they are in a worse place than the Penguins – a far worse place when their name players don’t have big games. And that is why the Pens are continuing to march on to the post-season, and the Caps, well… are not.