Lost Opportunity – Starting a season-long four-game road trip in Pittsburgh against the soaring Penguins – winners of nine straight games coming in – was a difficult task for the Capitals all along. But Washington got a boost with the return of forward Brooks Laich and defenseman Dmitry Orlov to its lineup for the first time this season, and the Pens were without reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin and point-a-game defenseman Kris Letang.
Washington put itself in prime position to get a point or two in Tuesday’s trip opener against the Penguins, but the Caps ultimately suffered a stinging 2-1 setback at the hands of the flightless fowl in Pittsburgh.
After a scoreless first the two teams traded power-play goals in the second, with each club cashing in on its second man-advantage opportunity of the night. Caps captain Alex Ovechkin gave his team a 1-0 lead when he corralled a rebound of a Troy Brouwer shot from the high slot and neatly clicked it off the left post and past Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury at 8:14 of the second.
Less than a minute after the Ovechkin marker, Caps winger Jason Chimera was sent off on an iffy hooking call; he merely lifted the stick of Pens forward Dustin Jeffrey, though Chimera’s blade was near Jeffrey’s hands near the end of the sequence.
Pittsburgh power plays killed the Caps in each of the first two meetings between the two teams this season, and Washington came to within four excruciating seconds of killing the Chimera minor before Paul Martin’s blast from center point got on the wrong side of Caps goalie Braden Holtby at 11:07 of the middle frame.
The Caps got their third power-play opportunity of the game with 48 seconds remaining in the second, and the two teams headed into the third all even at 1-1 and with Pittsburgh owning a slight 41-40 advantage in shot attempts.
With 1:12 with which to work on the man-advantage at the start of the third period, the Caps could muster nothing. Their lone power play shot attempt was blocked.
At the 7:49 mark of the third period, the Caps were given a golden opportunity to retake the lead and get their all-important road trip off on the right foot. Ovechkin drew a boarding call on ex-Caps winger Matt Cooke, and Cooke compounded the mistake by taking an additional minor for unsportsmanlike conduct.
In desperate need of standings points, the Caps now had a chance to administer a knockout punch on the road against the hottest team in the league. Washington had some chances, but it could not convert. Five shots were teed up; two made it on net, two were blocked and one missed.
As the seconds ticked down on the Caps’ man-advantage, the crowd’s roar began to swell. It reached a crescendo when Cooke exited the box, joined Sidney Crosby on the rush, took a feed from the Pens’ captain and then put the puck on a tee for Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen, who was trailing the play slightly. Niskanen fired the puck past Holtby.
“That last one is one that I’m more than capable of stopping,” rues Holtby. “He is a right-hand shot. He got it in the middle of his body, I squared up to him and then he made a shift to the right side a bit, to his right side. I wasn’t quick enough in regaining my position and gave him that slight area to shoot at. He made a nice shot, right above [Caps defenseman] Karl [Alzner]. Karl did a great job trying to get in front of it.”
The Caps couldn’t make a goat of Cooke, but Niskanen was able to make him into one of the Pens’ heroes just nine seconds after his double minor expired.
“We had three good chances where pucks bounced over our guys’ sticks right at the wrong time,” laments Caps coach Adam Oates of his team’s failure to capitalize on its four-minute power play opportunity in the third period. “We probably could have handled the puck a lot cleaner, but other than that we had our opportunities.”
“It was a winnable game,” says Oates. “At the end of that [power play] there is no way we should give up a turnover. That hurts. We talked about it, and [it happened] at an important time of the game. Everybody obviously knows the clock. It’s frustrating.”
Washington’s scoring chances during its crucial four-minute power play in the third were of the “one and done” variety. The Caps would get a shot or a look, then Pittsburgh would retrieve the puck and clear it. Washington was unable to sustain extended offensive zone pressure that might have worn the Pens’ penalty killers down and given the Caps a chance for an ultimate kill shot.
Instead, the Pens were able to clear the puck frequently and relatively routinely, ensuring that they always had fresh troops on the ice.
“I think we could have made better passes,” observes Laich. “Some of our passes weren’t in the wheelhouse or were wobbling a little bit where we had to slow it down.
“And then as the power play went on, maybe we should have tried to get one at the net or tried to get a whistle. You could feel it that they were getting a lot of momentum and we were getting a little scrambly at that point trying to slow it down. Their killers did a good job on our power play. We have to execute a little bit more and find a way to get a goal there.”
Washington lost for just the second time this season when limiting the opposition to two or fewer goals.
Two nights after leap-frogging the Sabres into 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings with a 5-3 win over Buffalo on Sunday at Verizon Center, the Caps are once again in 14th in the East, a point behind the Sabres. Buffalo took a 4-3 road win in Montreal on Tuesday.
Washington missed a chance to gain on a flock of teams tied for the final playoff berth and to hold serve with Southeast frontrunner Winnipeg which won a 3-1 home ice decision from Boston on Tuesday.
“We’re not the better team if we lose,” says Holtby. “I think that’s an excuse we’ve been making all year. We say we played good, just bounces didn’t go our way. If we don’t win, we’re not the better team. It’s as simple as that.”
Back In The Saddle – Laich and Orlov both saw their first duty of the 2012-13 season in Tuesday’s tilt. Laich started the game on the fourth line but moved up to the top six forward group by game’s end. He skated 12:51 on the night, including 2:13 while the Caps were shorthanded and 46 seconds worth of power-play time.
Laich had one shot on goal and three hits, and he won two of six face-offs on the night.
“Pretty good,” says Laich when asked how he felt after seeing his first NHL action of the season. “It’s been a long time coming. I’ve really been getting anxious to play. I had a good first period and got into the game pretty quickly. It’s just tough to not get the win.”
Orlov skated 11:58 on the night, including 1:07 of power play time. He was credited with one hit and one blocked shot.
Inspired Effort – Ovechkin teed up 14 shots on Tuesday, giving him 30 shot attempts over his last two games. The Caps’ captain skated a season-high 25:33 against the Pens, 8:34 of it coming on the power play. Ovechkin scored his team’s only goal and drawing the penalty that gave the Caps a chance to take the lead in the third.
Sixteen Blue – The Caps’ total of 16 losses is tied with Philadelphia and Florida for the most in the NHL this season.
On This Date – There are a couple of noteworthy anniversaries pertaining to Oates and Caps assistant coach Calle Johansson from this date in Caps history.
On March 19, 2001, Caps defenseman Calle Johansson played in the 1,000th game of his NHL career against the Rangers in New York. Johansson followed in the skatesteps of Swedish defensemen Borje Salming and Ulf Samuelsson to become just the third Swedish-born player to achieve the 1,000-game milestone in the NHL.
On March 19, 2002, the Caps swapped Oates to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for goaltender Maxime Ouellet and Philadelphia’s first-, second-, and third-round choices in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. The deal came just over five years after the Caps acquired Oates in a blockbuster six-player deal with the Bruins on March 1, 1997.
Two Hundo – Tonight’s game marked the 200th meeting all-time between the Capitals and the Penguins, the first of which was an 8-1 Washington loss in Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, 1974.
With a win on Tuesday, the Caps could have evened up their all-time set with the Pens. As it is, Washington is 88-90-16-6 in its 200 games against Pittsburgh.
Season Sweep – The Penguins won all three meetings between Washington and Pittsburgh this season, marking the third time in their 38-season NHL history that the Caps failed to win a game against the Pens in the season series between the two clubs. This is the first time in those 38 seasons in which Washington has failed to garner as much as a single point from its season series with the Penguins.
By The Numbers – Washington had the power play for 9:25 of the game, getting four shots on goal during that stretch. The Pens had the man-advantage for 3:59, during which they fired nine shots on Holtby ... John Carlson led the Caps with 27:42 in ice time … Matt Hendricks won all six of his face-off attempts for the Caps, and Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault each took six of seven (86%) … Pittsburgh blocked 24 shots, including 11 in the third period … Cooke led the Pens with six hits … Deryk Engelland led the Penguins with five blocked shots.