Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A TWO-Point Night -- Game 58: Capitals 3 - Penguins 1

Fans might be forgiven for thinking that the playoffs started in February, because it had that kind of feel to it when the Washington Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1, at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday night.

The first period looked as if it would end scoreless, then the Penguins' Blake Comeau took a tripping penalty on Nicklas Backstrom to put the Caps on a power play late in the period.  As the penalty was about to expire, the Penguins got lazy.  They managed to chip the puck out of their own end and again to the red line, which gave them the false security that they could make a line change.  But Joel Ward chipped the puck back toward the Penguin end, and Alex Ovechkin was there to pick it up as the Penguins were sorting out the place cards as to who should be on the ice.  Ovechkin broke in alone on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, deked him to the ice, and lifted a backhander that hit the center bar in the goal and bounced out.  It made for a brief moment when it appeared it might not have been a goal, but a goal it was, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead at the first intermission.

In the second period the Penguins struck back early when Steve Downie batted home a loose puck at the top of the crease.  It would be all the scoring there would be until the late in the third period.  The March of the Penguins (to the penalty box) that began 58 seconds into the period with penalties to Maxim Lapierre and Steve Downie would end with Chris Kunitz taking a boarding penalty and then Kris Letang taking a slashing penalty 11 seconds later to put the Caps on a 5-on-3 power play with 4:45 left.

Nicklas Backstrom took over from there.  It started with a shot by Alex Ovechkin that was muffled in front.  Troy Brouwer took a whack at it, but Marc-Andre Fleury directed the puck to the corner to his left.  Ovechkin ran the loose puck down at the right wing boards and fed Backstrom in the corner.  From there, Backstrom scanned his options and dialed up a pass across the top of the crease to Joel Ward on the far side of the ice to Fleury’s right.  Ward one-timed the puck past Fleury from a severe angle, and the Caps had a 2-1 lead with just 4:13 left in regulation.

The Caps had to kill a penalty late when Brooks Laich was sent off for goalie interference, and the Penguins brought Fleury to the bench to make it a 6-on-4 power play.  The Penguins struggled to gain entry into the Caps zone, and with a clot of players fighting for a loose puck at the Capitals’ blue line, John Carlson grabbed it and flicked it the length of the ice for the empty net goal with 11.4 seconds left to give the Caps the 3-1 win.

Other stuff…

-- There were eight power plays combined in this game, five for the Caps and three for the Penguins.  There could have been more…many more.  Nineteen penalties were called, and there could have been more…many more.  This was not a game that the NHL should use as a teaching device for new officials, because frankly, Kevin Pollock and Justin St. Pierre were awful.  They lost control of the game in the second period and it bubbled over into the third period when 12 of the game’s 19 penalties were called.

-- Fortunately for the Caps, it was the Penguins who melted down on their own ice, taking 11 penalties overall and eight of them in the third period, including two misconducts.  It should hardly have been surprising, given that the Penguins came into the game with the second most penalty minutes per game in the league.  By the time the game was over, after adding 41 penalty minutes to their season total, they had the top spot to themselves.

-- How even was this game?  It was 1-1 on the scoreboard until the 56th minute of the contest.  Each team had 33 shots on goal; the Penguins had a slim 58-55 edge in shot attempts.  The teams split 52 faceoffs right down the middle.

-- Braden Holtby is now 3-0-0 against the Penguins with a GAA of 0.33, a save percentage of .989, and two shutouts.  When Steve Downie scored in the second period it broke a streak of 155:38 of shutout hockey pitched by Holtby against the Penguins.

-- Alex Ovechkin’s goal and assist give him 19 multi-point games this season, tying him with Nicklas Backstrom for the league lead.  Backstrom, who had an assist on the game-winning goal, and Ovechkin now rank tied for second and tied for fourth, respectively, in points.  Backstrom extended his league lead in assists with his 44th helper.  Ovechkin’s goal gave him 37 on the season, tops in the league, and 17 power play goals, also best in the league.  He and Backstrom are tied for third in total power play scoring.

-- One might think that the official scorer was borrowed from the Steelers.  A total of 86 hits were credited to the two teams, 50 to the Penguins and 36 to the Capitals.  Nine players were credited with five or more hits, three for the Caps (Troy Brouwer, Tom Wilson, and Brooks Orpik) and six for the Penguins.

-- A somewhat odd stat in this game… three defensemen for the Caps did not have so much as a single shot attempt: Matt Kiskanen, Karl Alzner, and Brooks Orpik.  Jay Beagle made it four skaters for the Caps without a shot attempt.  He did have the only takeaway credited to the Caps, though.

-- John Carlson’s goal was the first shorthanded goal by a Capitals defenseman since Mike Green scored a shortie against the Florida Panthers (the game-winning goal) in a 3-1 win on February 7, 2009.  It was the sixth of what would be an eight game goal streak for Green, an NHL record for defensemen.

-- Eric Fehr won all four draws he took against Evgeni Malkin, sending Malkin to a 5-for-14 night in the circle.

-- The win gave the Caps 16 road wins this season.  All of last season the Caps had 17 road wins.

In the end…

The Capitals won the season series outright from the Penguins for the first time since 2010-2011, when they went 3-0-1.  The odd part of that is that in 2010-2011 the Caps also won three games by shutting out the Penguins twice and allowing one goal in the other win.  In this game there were some things revealed. 

One, the Penguins seem to be desperately trying to mask a lack of depth, especially among their forwards, though chippy play.  Steve Downie (who was expelled for not playing well with others), Maxim Lapierre, Chris Kunitz (who is not the 35-goal scorer he was last season), and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo all were whistled for infractions in this game.  It is not a matter with which they are unfamiliar.

Two, the Caps showed an ability to exhibit equal parts spine and patience dealing with the Penguins’ hijinks.  Alex Ovechkin’s slash of Kris Letang’s skate that sent the defenseman tumbling into the boards probably should have been a penalty, but the Penguins’ response was disproportionate to the offense, one that lasted pretty much the rest of the game.  The Caps took it, to a point, and eventually made the Penguins pay, breaking through against what has been a Penguin strength, its penalty kill.

Three, Braden Holtby appears to be in the Penguins’ heads.  Having failed to find a way to solve him with offensive playmaking in the first two games this season, they took to just being offensive by jostling him early and often in an attempt to throw the goalie off his focus.  If begs the question, with Plan A and Plan B failing, what’s Plan C? 

The teams have one regular season meeting remaining, that coming next Wednesday in Washington.  Can’t wait, can you?