In the first of their four meetings against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins this season on Wednesday night at Capital One Arena, the Caps got good goaltending, they played well enough at five-on-five, and they effectively neutralized Pittsburgh’s most dangerous offensive weapons.
What the Caps could not do was stay out of the penalty box, and at night’s end they found themselves on the short end of a 3-2 score. All three of Pittsburgh’s goals came on the power play; the Pens went 3-for-6 with the man advantage.
“From our standpoint, it really didn’t allow our top players to get going,” laments Caps coach Barry Trotz of his team’s early season penchant for penalties. “They started going in the third when they got a little more ice time, but every time we started to get any rhythm, we took a penalty.
“The first four games, I said to the guys, ‘Let’s be real – we’ve got to get our penalties down.’ Our five-on-five, we’re outscoring teams, so that’s a real good process for us. We’re getting good goaltending. But today, they had three power play goals. We were sitting in the box too much, especially in the first two periods.”
Pittsburgh took the lead on a power play early in the first. With just five seconds remaining on Matt Niskanen’s two-minute sentence for slashing, Pens defenseman Kris Letang scored on a backhander in the midst of a goalmouth scramble at 5:22 of the first.
The Caps had some decent looks at the net early in the game but missed the mark or had shots blocked, for the most part. They also spent a fair bit of time killing penalties, as they were whistled for three minors in the first period and three more in the second.
The Penguins burned the Capitals on the power play once more in the second, and once again, they did so with just a few ticks remaining on the penalty. With Christian Djoos in the box for tripping – the first penalty of his NHL career in his league debut – Pens winger Patric Hornqvist scored on another goalmouth scramble, sliding a shot under the outstretched arm of Washington netminder Braden Holtby. Hornqvist’s goal came at 8:20 of the second period, staking the visitors to a 2-0 lead.
Washington didn’t have much going on in the way of second period scoring chances, but the Caps were able to halve the Pittsburgh lead in the final minute of the middle period.
The Caps’ third line manufactured the goal. Alex Chiasson won the puck on the left wing wall high in the Pittsburgh zone, the issued the first of three short, quick, sharp tape-to-tape passes, bumping the puck to Brett Connolly. Connolly went to Lars Eller, and Eller fed Djoos on the weak side. The rookie blueliner cranked a one-timer that caught a piece of Matt Murray’s glove, beating the Pens goalie on the short side at 19:07.
But Chiasson took a holding penalty with 4.5 seconds left in the second, giving the Pens’ power play nearly two full minutes on a clean sheet of ice to start the third. This time, the Pens didn’t wait. Justin Schultz made a strong play to feed Conor Sheary for a back-door tap-in just 38 seconds into the third, restoring Pittsburgh’s two-goal lead.
Washington once again pulled to within a goal in the back half of the final frame, making it a 3-2 game when Alex Ovechkin was able to convert a neat Djoos feed from in tight. That goal came at 12:51, but unfortunately it was also the Capitals’ final shot on net of the night.
The Pens locked down the one-goal lead skillfully from that point on, and Washington’s best chance came late when Evgeny Kuznetsov went end to end, carving his way through the middle of the ice and into the Pittsburgh zone, only to be upended by Letang just before he could pull the trigger or make a move.
“I think we all knew early on that based on the preseason, there was going to be a lot of penalties, says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik. “It’s probably on us to be a little more disciplined, but yeah, we’ve got to be a little better at penalty killing at the same time.”
Washington was successful in each of its first 13 penalty killing missions this season, but the Caps have now been dented for four power-play goals in their last seven shorthanded situations.