The first divisional match-up in more than two decades between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins turned out to be an anti-climactic affair. With first place in the Metropolitan Division at stake, the Penguins earned a dominant 4-0 whitewash decision over Washington at Verizon Center on Wednesday night.
“It was probably just our execution,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “You obviously have to give [the Penguins] some credit; they played a very good hockey game. We got behind early and they’re a tough team to catch up [against]. They didn’t give us anything.”
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s game against Pittsburgh, Washington talked about both the Penguins as an opponent and the game itself being measuring sticks. If that’s the case, the Caps came up well short in this one.
“It will be a little harder tomorrow because it was a game you were looking forward to,” says Oates, “a team that you wanted to beat. There are lots of ways to lose games, and that’s not really one way you want to do it.”
Washington got an early power play opportunity when Craig Adams was whistled for an offensive zone tripping call at 3:24 of the first, but the Caps couldn’t cash in. Five seconds after Adams was seated, Alex Ovechkin rang one off the post for what might have been the Capitals’ best offensive opportunity of the evening.
About a minute after the Pens killed the Adams minor, the Washington trio of Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer and Aaron Volpatti was guilty of icing the puck. Penguins center Sidney Crosby bested Laich on the ensuing draw in the Capitals’ end, winning the puck back to Paul Martin at the right point. Martin floated a shot through a screen, and the puck eluded Caps goalie Braden Holtby, beating him high on the short side to give the Pens a 1-0 lead at 6:38 of the first.
Just over five minutes later, the Pens doubled their lead. Pittsburgh’s Beau Bennett wrested the puck away from Caps center Michael Latta in the neutral zone, then Bennett worked a bit of a give and go with Evgeni Malkin. Bennett got the puck back from Malkin and went into the Caps’ zone with three red jerseys around him. With shooting the puck as his only option, Bennett did so and beat Holtby to the far side for a 2-0 Penguins lead just past the midpoint of the first.
Washington had three extra-man opportunities – each of them the result of a Pittsburgh infraction in the offensive zone – totaling 4:34 in power play time in the first period, but could not convert.
The Caps showed themselves a bit better in the second period, but still spent too much time dodging bullets in their own end and failing to test Pens’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury at the other end.
It wasn’t until more than 24 minutes into the game – a point at which they were already in a 2-0 hole – that Washington managed the meager offensive achievement of recording consecutive even-strength shot attempts. Only one of those three shot tries in the fifth minute of the second period actually made its way to the Pittsburgh net, requiring a save from Fleury.
That was Washington’s night in a microcosm.
The Caps had seven consecutive even-strength shot attempts during a four-minute span in the middle of the period, but again, only two of those required ay work from Fleury.
Trailing 2-0 with less than two minutes remaining in the second, the Caps put themselves in peril with a bench minor for too many men on the ice at 18:26. The Pens made the Caps pay, Crosby finishing off a brilliant passing sequence with a one-timer from the goal line to the left of the net, a laser than beat Holtby high on the short side, a goal scorer’s goal.
Going into that power play late in the second period, Pittsburgh owned a dominant 45-24 advantage in even-strength shot attempts and a lopsided 26-6 advantage in even-strength shots on net. They fired five times on that power play, and the fifth one expanded their lead to 3-0 going into the final frame.
James Neal beat Holtby on a wrist shot in the third period to finish off the night’s scoring. Washington mustered only eight shot attempts in a lackluster third period, and only four shots found their way to Fleury.
Of the 18 shots the Capitals put on Fleury in the game, only 10 came at even strength. Only one of those even-strength shots came from inside 20 feet, that one a deflection attempt by Nicklas Backstrom late in the first frame.
Washington had great difficulty exiting its own zone cleanly throughout the night. The Caps turned pucks over routinely and rarely were able to put consecutive crisp passes together.
“I would say that was our biggest weakness tonight,” says Oates of his team’s inability to move the puck efficiently up the ice from its own end. “We had a shift once in the third where we had two guys open and we ice it both times. And then we make a wrong decision and we barely get it out.
“You don’t want to make such a simple conclusion that it’s passing, but a lot of it was tonight. We didn’t put it on the tape. We didn’t help ourselves in terms of allowing the puck to go forward. They’re a good skating team; they’re a well-coached hockey team. You can’t give them second and third chances, and we did.”
Holtby faced 40 shots on the night, marking the second straight game in which he has faced 40 or more pucks.
“That’s the big thing,” says Holtby. “You face a lot of shots against, and that obviously means the other team has a lot of possession. And obviously you’re not getting many chances to score. Regardless of how many shots we get or chances we get, I thought I could have done a better job.”
Pittsburgh gave the Caps next to nothing over the course of the game, and the Pens came in for some richly deserved praise when it was over.
“They were amazing through the neutral zone,” marvels Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “They came with speed every single time, always had three guys, if not three, then four. Didn’t give us any time to pinch. It was a great game by them and bad game by us. And we didn’t possess the puck at all; we didn’t get our cycle game going. They were making us turn and chase pucks all night. It was tough, real tough.”
Washington’s three-game winning streak and its six-game home ice winning streak both came to a halt on Wednesday.
“’Smothering’ is always a word we use,” says Pens coach Dan Bylsma. “When you give up 18 shots – and there was a lot of good in this game – but the third period and only giving them four shots against and really playing solid the second half of the game that way, we didn’t give up a lot. We didn’t give them opportunities to get speed and space and I thought it was tough for them to get through there. It was smothering and guys did a great job.
A Little Help – Holtby was nicked for two goals on 17 shots in the first period of Wednesday’s game. Combined with the 37 shots fired at him in the final two periods of his previous outing on Sunday against St. Louis, that made 54 shots on the Washington net over a 60-minute span with Holtby in the net.
The Caps’ goalie stopped 51 of those 54 shots for an impressive .944 save pct. during that stretch.
“I don’t feel like it’s too much,” says Holtby, of his team’s recent high volume of shots against. “I feel like I can handle that. You don’t get pucks thrown too often. You get goals like the first goal that just have eyes when you throw them at the net, sooner or later you’re going to get luck on your side. But in saying that, even though there is a high shot total, I thought I could have done better in the game today.”
In facing 40 or more shots on net in consecutive starts and in consecutive Caps games that did not go to overtime, Holtby became the first Washington netminder to do so in more than seven years.
Olie Kolzig – now the Caps’ goaltending coach – faced 40 or more shots in consecutive starts on Nov. 11-13, 2006 against the Rangers and Panthers, respectively. Kolzig won both starts, allowing one goal in each game while facing a combined total of 87 shots.
Shooting Gallery – The Caps surrendered 30 or more shots on goal for the 16th time in their last 17 games on Wednesday. Washington has allowed at least 30 shots on net in 19 of its 22 games this season.
Wednesday’s game marked the third time this season that Washington has allowed 30 or more shots on net in the first 40 minutes of a game. The other two occasions were on Oct. 16 vs. the New York Rangers at Verizon Center (a 2-0 Washington loss) and on Oct. 22 against the Jets in Winnipeg (a 5-4 shootout win for the Capitals).
Down Three Going To The Third – Wednesday’s game marked just the second time in 22 games this season that Washington went into the third period of a game down by as many as three goals. The first was when the Caps started the final frame of an October 12 game against Colorado in a 3-0 hole on their way to what would be a 5-1 setback to the Avalanche at Verizon Center.
Eight Is Not Great – Tonight’s game marked the third time this season that the Capitals have played in a game that started at 8 p.m. local time. Washington is 0-3 in those three games and it has been outscored by a combined 11-2 in those contests.
Both of the Caps’ shutout losses this season came in 8 p.m. games on home ice against Metropolitan Division rivals. The first came at the hands of the New York Rangers on Oct. 16.
Bench Minor Leads To Major Problem – The Caps’ bench minor for two many men on the ice late in the second period was the fourth bench minor assessed against the Capitals in 22 games this season, tying them for the second highest total in the league. Only Edmonton (five) has more bench minors in 2013-14.
Caps right wing Troy Brouwer came to the bench but didn’t come off the ice, and rookie right wing Tom Wilson hopped over the boards.
“My fault, quite honestly,” says Oates of the Caps’ crucial bench minor against the Pens. “I apologized to Willie. Brouw was coming off; he lost his stick. He yelled, ‘right!’ so I told Willie, ‘Go!’ And he was just getting another stick and we had too many guys on us. It was really my fault because I yelled and Willie was there. Actually, it’s probably something we’ll address [at practice Thursday].”
Down two goals late in the second period at the time of the infraction, the Caps were still within striking distance. But given their inability to get anything going in the attack zone, they weren’t coming back from a 3-0 deficit against this Pittsburgh team on this night.
Martin’s goal was the only one the Penguins needed, as it turned out. But Crosby’s power play tally late in the second is the one that really turned the lights out on the Caps.
One Up – Pittsburgh has now blanked Washington eight times over the years while the Caps have whitewashed the Penguins on seven occasions.
Wednesday’s whitewash of Washington was Fleury’s first shutout against the Caps since Feb. 3, 2007. He becomes the first Pens goalie to shutout the Capitals more than once.
“I think maybe as complete a game as we’ve played in that regard,” says Bylsma. “We came out, pushed the pace and the speed of the game. Opportunities, we get up a couple of goals.
“Their power play is a special power play. We had to dig down there with three of those kills in the first half of the game, which were really big. The second half of the game, it was a team effort. How we played the game, how we managed the puck and how we shut them down, it’s definitely gratifying to get the shutout.”
Pittsburgh’s blanking of Washington on Wednesday was its largest shutout win over the Caps since Denis Herron authored a 4-0 Pens victory over the Capitals at the Capital Centre on Oct. 14, 1983.
By The Numbers – There were more Washington skaters (10) who did not record a shot on goal in Wednesday’s game than those who did (eight) … Ovechkin teed up 10 shots on the night but got only two of them on net … Backstrom led the Caps with five shots on goal … Pittsburgh skaters blocked as many shots (18) as Fleury saved … Ovechkin paced the Capitals with six hits … Brooks Orpik led the Pens with seven hits … Martin led the Penguins with six blocked shots.