As long as Alex Ovechkin skates for the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby skates for the Pittsburgh Penguins, games between these teams will matter. However, one game in the 2013-2014 series meant more than the others. It is to that game we turn in the seventh game that mattered this season.
March 11, 2014: Washington (30-26-10) at Pittsburgh (43-17-4)
Result: Penguins 2 – Capitals 0
The Background: When the Capitals beat the Phoenix Coyotes on March 8th in what was goaltender Jaroslav Halak’s debut with the club, the Caps found themselves within one point of Detroit for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and two behind the New York Rangers for seventh place. If they could complete a successful back-to-back home-and-home set with the Pittsburgh Penguins, it would mean a three-game winning streak that might give the club momentum for a late season push to the playoffs. When the Caps lost at home in the first half of the set, it set up an important rematch in Pittsburgh the following night, not only for the Caps to keep contact with the teams in front of them in the standings, but to get a win against an arch rival they had yet to defeat in three tries this season.
Why It Mattered: In the first 16 minutes and change of the game there were more hits recorded (18) than shots on goal (11). Worse for the Caps, the Pens had nine of those shots on goal. Then, instead of merely being dominated, the Caps went all stupid. It started at the 16:26 mark when Dmitry Orlov collected a loose puck in the corner to goalie Jaroslav Halak’s left and threw it up ice to no one in particular. Evgeni Malkin stopped it with his skate, circled around Orlov, and made a beeline for the cage. But for a quick thinking Nicklas Backstrom, who hustled back on defense, Malkin would have had an easy set up to Taylor Pyatt all alone in the slot. Backstrom got his stick on the pass, though, and the puck skidded off to the left wing wall.
The Caps could not get the puck out of their end though, Pyatt beating Backstrom to the loose puck along the wall and nudging it back to the point where Rob Scuderi kept it in. Scuderi tried to bang the puck back down the wall, but it was deflected to the middle and onto Orlov’s stick once more. Orlov tried to move the puck up to Marcus Johansson, but there was Malkin and his skate again to stop the puck before it reached its intended target. Malkin skated down the right wing wall, turned and fed the puck back to Matt Niskanen at the right point. Niskanen sent a shot to the net that was dulled just enough by the stick of Jussi Jokinen to upset Halak’s timing on his save attempt. The puck slid through Halak’s pads and in, giving the Pens a 1-0 lead on their tenth shot of the period.
That is the way it remained for the next 37 minutes. Then, with the clock ticking under six minutes to play, Orlov was victimized one more time. This time he gloved a puck down at the left point in the Penguins’ end, but could not collect it and send it back down the wall before Lee Stempniak stepped up on him. They collided, and as they were getting untangled from each other, Sidney Crosby jumped on the loose puck and took off on a 2-on-1 break with Chris Kunitz, only Connor Carrick back on defense for the Caps. Crosby held the puck as he skated down the right side, then called his own number an instant before Carrick could poke the puck off his stick, sending a wrist shot under Halak’s right arm and into the far side of the net for a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead.
The Caps would muster some pressure in the next 5:48, putting seven of their 20 shots of the period on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. None of them found the back of the net, though, and the Caps skated off with their second loss in two nights to the Penguins.
The Takeaway: It was the fourth loss in four games to the Penguins in the 2013-2014 season and the Caps eighth straight loss to Pittsburgh overall. For Adam Oates it would be the last game he coached against the Penguins for the Capitals, contributing a record of 0-7-0 to that eight-game losing streak. He became the first coach to complete his tenure without having beaten Pittsburgh since Roger Crozier failed to do it. We should mention that Crozier coached the Caps for only one game, a 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers on November 7, 1981.
For the Caps it was their fifth loss in six games (1-4-1) and the second time they were shut out in a span of four games. Only four teams – Nashville, New Jersey, Edmonton, and Buffalo – would be shut out more often than the Caps, who were blanked eight times in 2013-2014. In this one the big guns were all but silent. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green combined for three of the Caps’ 32 shots on goal. Meanwhile, Jason Chimera (6) and Jack Hillen (5) accounted for more than a third of the total shots. On the other hand, the Penguins got shots from the players from whom they wanted them. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Matt Niskanen (assuming a bigger power play role in the absence of Kris Letang, who was recuperating from a stroke) combined for 15 of the Penguins’ 34 shots on goal. It spoke to a fine effort by the Caps’ new goalie, Jaroslav Halak.
In the end…
The Capitals-Penguins regular season rivalry has always been punctuated by streakiness. The Caps owned the series in the 1980’s. The Penguins dominated in the 1990s and early 2000’s. The Caps had a run in the Bruce Boudreau era. Now, the Penguins are on top. But really, no wins in eight tries, just one standings point earned in an overtime loss, and getting outscored by 30-14 in the process? The current streak ties the series’ longest winless streak for the Caps dating back from November 28, 1992 through November 26, 1993 (0-6-2). The Caps still own the longest winning streak in the series with Pittsburgh, nine games from December 2, 1984 through November 20, 1985, but to give you an idea of how long ago that is, the end of the streak came in Adam Oates’ rookie season as a player in the NHL.
It was the end of a gruesome 24 hours for the Caps against arguably their most hated rival. All games against the Pittsburgh Penguins matter in Capitals Nation, but the manner in which this one slammed home the point that one team was superior, and it was not the Caps, made this one matter a little bit more.
Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America