Three times the Capitals took the lead against the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, once in each of the game’s three periods. And three times the Penguins responded by tying the game again. In the end, Pittsburgh prevailed 4-3, getting the go-ahead dagger goal on a left point shot from rookie defenseman Olli Maatta with just 1:54 left in the game.
“We figured out a way to lose it tonight,” rues Caps coach Adam Oates. “We had two chances [to win it], two chances in the third, and [we made] too many mistakes on both goals.”
The Caps have had the better of the possession game over a handful of games lately, but they struggled early in that regard in Wednesday’s game against the Penguins. The Caps spent a lot of the first period in their own end, facing a barrage of Pittsburgh shots from all around the zone. Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth made some good stops, the Pens missed on a couple of shots (and they fanned on a brilliant one-time bid from the slot) and the Caps were able to get on the board first, doing so in the early seconds of a Pittsburgh power play.
Joel Ward went off for tripping at 12:48 of the first, and soon afterwards Caps defenseman Karl Alzner intercepted a Kris Letang pass in the neutral zone. Alzner pushed the puck up the left wing wall to Brooks Laich, creating a 2-on-1 situation in the Pittsburgh end with Letang as the lone man back. Laich tried to feed Brouwer, but Letang dropped to the ice and broke up the pass with his stick.
Because Letang was still on the ice, it was relatively easy for Laich to regain control of the puck and he fired a shot from just above the top of the paint to beat Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for a 1-0 Washington lead at 13:09.
“Karl made a really good play, actually,” recounts Laich. “They bobbled the pass across; I think it went in one of their guys’ feet. Karl had a great gap and bumped it up to me. I was trying to move it to Brouw [on the] back door. I got a little lucky. Letang slipped and took himself out of the play and I was able to be one on one with the goalie.”
The Caps escaped the first with that 1-0 lead, and got off to a better start in the second. But the Pens pulled even near the midpoint of the period.
Pittsburgh broke out of its own end on a 4-on-2 rush, Chris Kunitz passing to Tanner Glass along the right wing wall as the latter reached the Washington line. Glass pushed the puck toward the middle for Sidney Crosby, who neatly tapped it to the late guy, Kris Letang. Letang’s shot clicked off the stick of Caps center Nicklas Backstrom and then off the stick of Washington blueliner John Carlson and past Neuvirth to make it a 1-1 game at 9:53 of the second.
“They’re probably the best puck-moving team in the league,” notes Caps winger Eric Fehr. “I think they’re really tough to predict, coming out of their end, where they’re going to go. They use everybody and it’s tough to get a read on them. They were getting pretty good exits all night and coming up with a lot of speed and a lot of skill so it’s really tough to defend.”
Washington regained its lead about five minutes later. Ward curled out from behind the Pittsburgh net and passed to Dmitry Orlov at the left point. Orlov threaded the puck to Marcus Johansson down low on the right side, and Johansson one-timed it back to linemate Jason Chimera at the opposite side of the crease. Chimera was left with an easy tap-in for a 2-1 Capitals lead.
The Caps weren’t quite able to nurse that one-goal advantage to the intermission, though. The second Washington lead of the night lasted only 97 seconds.
Washington was in decent shape when Pittsburgh gained the zone. The Caps had four skaters in their end to defend the three Penguins forwards who entered, Evgeni Malkin carrying the puck. Malkin fed Jussi Jokinen, who spun and spotted the fourth Penguin, Maatta, entering the zone. Jokinen passed to Maatta, who deked his way past Caps winger Tom Wilson, and carried down to the bottom of the circle before passing to Taylor Pyatt in the slot. Pyatt had more time and space than the Caps would have liked, enough to one-time a wrist shot past Neuvirth to make it 2-2 with 3:52 left in the second period.
“They had the puck in the neutral zone and they were regrouping,” says Carrick. “They made a good play at the blueline there, I think it went to Malkin and he went wide with it and it went back cross-ice, which is a tough play anytime something happens that quick in the neutral zone.
“I think [Wilson] went out and tried to make a good defensive play, I think it was Maatta who had a nice fake on him. I had to respect his fake and try to come over, try to buy enough time for backside pressure. I think it was [Caps defenseman John Erskine] coming back and trying to get Pyatt. Pyatt is a left-handed shot; it’s tough for Ersk to get all the way to the backside there. Pyatt did a great job of getting open and he put it in a good spot.”
The Capitals earned third lead of the night at 8:35 of the third while the two teams were playing with four skaters to a side. Caps captain Alex Ovechkin had his stick hacked away on an uncalled slash from Pens defenseman Brooks Orpik, but he retrieved his weapon just as Johansson took a pass from Mike Green at center point. Johansson put it on Ovechkin’s tape, and he fired a one-timer that beat Fleury to give the Caps a 3-2 lead.
“Four-on-four,” says Ovechkin, “I lost my stick. I think [the Penguins] kind of lost me. Jojo gave me a good pass.”
Ovechkin’s goal would have sufficed as a suitable ending for Caps fans, but there was still 11:25 left on the clock. And the Pens needed only three of those minutes to pull even. With the two teams again playing four-on-four, Pens forward Brandon Sutter pushed a pass through the slot that barely eluded both Carrick and Backstrom, then careened toward Jokinen at the back door. Orlov tried to make a play on the pass and inadvertently backhanded it into his own net.
“Sutter was coming up the wall on his right hand,” says Carrick. “He kind of cut back; I tried to keep him to the outside on his backhand. I think he made a nice play to the net. I don’t know who was on the backside, Jokinen I think it was. He had good position again, another left-handed shot, a one-timer on that side. I didn’t know what happened backside of me but he found himself open and the puck found its way to his stick.”
The real back-breaker was yet to come. Malkin had the Caps chasing him in the Washington zone, to no avail. He came out from behind the cage on Neuvirth’s right and passed to Maatta at the left point. Maatta skated into the circle and let go of a wrist shot that found its way through a maze of bodies and past Neuvirth for Pittsburgh’s only lead of the night, and the only one that mattered in the end.
“[Malkin] is fresh there,” laments Oates. “The whole shift he looked like the guy on the ice who was fresh and he was elusive. We chased him behind [the net] and they broke us down. When guys can protect the puck and carry it for that long a period of time … obviously we’re going to front the shot, [Ward] is going to front the shot. [Maatta] makes a good move and before you know it you’re getting just a little bit out of position. They had a good screen and it goes in.”
“They’re our rival, there’s a lot of distaste with our group and theirs,” says Laich. “And we knew that coming in, that it was going to be an intense, emotional game. For the most part it was and I thought we played a very good game. Tough one. I’m not exactly sure what happened on the last goal, but tough one to give up for sure.”
Fatigue vs. Freshness – Playing in their fifth game in the last seven nights, the Caps were certainly more worn than the Pens, who had been idle since Saturday. The Caps played home games on Sunday and Tuesday.
Heading into the final period of that five-games-in-seven-nights stretch, Oates had a final warning for his troops. He felt that warning went unheeded.
“The last thing I said going out for the third was, ‘You’ve got to know how much juice you’ve got in the tank,’” recalls Oates, “because we played last night and they didn’t.
We had two leads; we blew it. On both goals, I thought we should have changed and we didn’t. We got caught a little tired and when you’re tired, you make mistakes. And they’ve got great players. Malkin makes a fantastic rush on that goal, on the winner.”
On the Pens’ third goal that was awarded to Jokinen, Caps forwards Fehr and Backstrom had both been on the ice for nearly a minute, as had Orlov. Carrick was the freshest Caps skater at 26 seconds.
On the Maatta game-winner, each member of the Caps’ third line (Chimera, Johansson and Ward) had been on the ice for 65 seconds at the time of the goal. That’s probably anywhere from 25-30 seconds longer than the Caps’ staff would want those shifts to be at that juncture of the team’s fifth game in seven nights.
“There’s a responsibility for guys to come [off],” says Oates. “You’re yelling to change. [Guys] get caught up in the moment [thinking] maybe we can get one more rush out of it. And when you do, when you go up [ice] you’ve got to be able to get back. You can’t gamble. There are mistakes. It’s a shame, because you’ve played a good hockey game and you don’t want to blow points.”
Not Tonight – Neuvirth authored a 1-0 shutout win over the Penguins in the Capitals’ first ever game at Consol Energy Center on Feb. 21, 2011. He remains the only Caps goalie to win in regulation for Washington at the Penguins’ new home.
Tomas Vokoun – now a member of the Penguins – earned a 3-2 overtime win for the Caps in that barn on Oct. 13, 2011, but Washington has not won in Pittsburgh since.
Neuvirth suffered his first career regulation loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday. He falls to 2-1-2 lifetime against the Penguins.
Shorty Wanna Ride With Me – For Laich, the shorthanded goal was the 10th of his NHL career and his first since March 11, 2012. Laich is seventh on Washington’s all-time shorthanded goal list, one behind Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Gartner. Peter Bondra is the all-time franchise record holder with 32.
Helping Hands – Alzner had four assists in 48 games for the Capitals last season. With his helper on Laich’s shorthanded goal, Alzner now has four assists in seven games in the month of January.
Alzner’s 10 assists on the season match the second highest single-season total of his six-year NHL career. He recorded a single-season career best 16 assists in 2011-12.
Class Reunion – Only 20 of the 211 players chosen at the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh have made it to the NHL thus far, but three members of the Pittsburgh class of 2012 were on the ice for Wednesday’s game at Consol Energy Center.
Washington chose Wilson in the first round (16th overall), and he has played in all 47 Caps games this season. The Caps plucked Carrick in the fifth round (137th overall), and he has played in eight of Washington’s 47 games.
Pittsburgh picked Maatta in the first round (22nd overall), and he has played in 47 of the Penguins’ 48 games in 2013-14.
The 400 Club – Ward played in his 400th career NHL game on Wednesday night. He made his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild at Vancouver on Dec. 16, 2006. Ward has played 158 of those games in a Washington sweater.
Baker’s Dozen – Pittsburgh has now won 13 straight games on its home ice, taking 12 of the wins during that streak in regulation. The Caps only have 12 regulation wins all season, in all venues.
During the life of its current 13-game home winning streak, Pittsburgh has outscored its foes by a combined 53-30 and it has scored at least three regulation goals in 12 of the 13 games.
Washington led for 21:21 in Wednesday’s game. Going into the game with the Capitals, Pittsburgh had trailed for only 73:38 of the 725 minutes of hockey it had played during the streak.
The Penguins’ streak is the longest in franchise history, exceeding a 12-game home ice winning streak that ran from Feb. 22-March 30, 2013.
By The Numbers – John Carlson led the Caps with 28:07 in ice time … Ovechkin led the Caps with six shots and 11 shot attempts … Brouwer and Jay Beagle led the Capitals with four hits each … Four Penguins had at least five hits in the game: Craig Adams and Zach Sill each had six while Pyatt and Letang each chipped in with five … Rob Scuderi led the Pens with four blocked shots.