Only seven NHL players have scored 30 or more goals thus far this season, and two of them helped doom the Washington Capitals on Monday night at Verizon Center. Chris Kunitz scored twice and Sidney Crosby once as the Pittsburgh Penguins handed the Caps a tough 3-2 setback in the first half of a home-and-home set between the two teams.
“It very tough because the guys played a good game,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “Probably one of the better games we’ve played against that team. To come out on the short end of the stick is difficult. We did a lot of good things in the game.”
Both clubs departed for the Steel City after the game where they’ll play the second half of the set on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.
Washington’s starting forward trio of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward went right to work in the Pittsburgh end, getting the game’s first scoring chance on the first shift when Pens goaltender Jeff Zatkoff was forced to make a save on Fehr to keep the Caps off the board.
But before the shift was over, it was the Pens who owned the lead. Pittsburgh broke out of its end, and Sidney Crosby passed to Chris Kunitz near the Washington line. Kunitz blew past a seemingly frozen Mike Green and beat Caps goalie Jaroslav Halak to make it 1-0 just 46 seconds after the opening puck drop.
“It’s tough because we had a great shift,” says Oates. “We were all over them; we almost scored. And Greenie got caught a little flat-footed on the play; probably a little surprised at the end of the shift that Kunitz had that much juice. So it takes the wind out of your sails when you’re trying to establish a good game and here we go.”
The Caps got that goal back in fairly short fashion, scoring on the Fehr line’s second shift of the contest. Washington defenseman Karl Alzner forced a turnover in the neutral zone, and the Caps’ forward trio headed north in transition. Ward gained the zone along the left wing wall, leaving the puck for Chimera near the Pittsburgh line. Chimera spotted Fehr driving the net with speed, and floated a pass in that direction on a timing play. Fehr beat Pens forward Taylor Pyatt to the puck and chipped it past Zatkoff to make it a 1-1 game at 3:03 of the first.
Only 38 seconds after Fehr’s goal, Caps center Nicklas Backstrom was jailed for slashing. Pittsburgh’s lethal power play wasted no time in regaining the lead. Crosby blasted a one-timer past Halak on the short side a mere 11 seconds after Backstrom had been seated in the penalty box.
Washington survived an Alex Ovechkin roughing minor late in second and entered the middle stanza down 2-1.
The Caps came out blazing in the second. Washington had 13 shot attempts to just three for the Penguins in the first four and a half minutes of the frame, all of which were played at even strength. The Caps used that domination to draw a holding call on Crosby at 4:31 when the Pens captain made an open field tackle on Washington winger Dustin Penner.
Pittsburgh’s top-ranked penalty killing outfit killed that minor without incident, but Pens forward Joe Vitale went off for an offensive-zone tripping call at 8:35 and Washington took advantage of that call to pull even with the Penguins. Backstrom’s shot from the right circle caromed favorably into the cage at 8:57 of the second to even the affair at 2-2. Brooks Laich appeared to have tipped the puck past Zatkoff, and Laich was originally credited with the tally. But between the second and third periods, Backstrom was given credit for his 13th goal of the season.
The Caps kept the pressure on afterwards, but the Pens got the lead back only 11 seconds after a television timeout just after the midpoint of the frame. Pittsburgh won a neutral zone draw; then Crosby carried into the Washington end and fed Lee Stempniak, who fired from the top of the right circle. Halak made a pad save, but pushed the rebound right to Kunitz who buried it for his second goal of the game.
“If you look at the game tonight,” says Laich, “I mean, scoring chances I think would be in our favor. [The Penguins are] just a very opportunistic team. The neutral zone – controlling the neutral zone was a key for us today, and two of the goals they got we didn’t do it. The first [goal] at the start of the game, certainly, and the third one they get speed through the neutral zone and make a play, and after that they capitalize on their opportunity. Other than that I didn’t think they had a whole lot.”
Washington led the Pens 33-20 in shots on goal and 69-45 in shot attempts in the game, but once Pittsburgh regained that one-goal lead in the second period, it battened down its defensive hatches much more tightly. Over the next 20 minutes of playing time – 18 of them at even strength – the Caps managed a total of just six shots on net from an average distance of 42 feet. There were no second chance opportunities and there wasn’t nearly as much sustained time in the attack zone as Washington managed in the first half of the game.
Washington got one more chance to pull even when Pittsburgh was guilty of having too many men on the ice with 2:17 left in the third, but again the Pens were up to the task. The Caps teed up five shots and got three on net, but none of the three came from inside 20 feet and the shot tries were well spaced from a Penguins standpoint; again no second chances.
As it has done in the last seven meetings between the two teams, Pittsburgh prevailed.
“I think we played a pretty good hockey game,” says Oates. “We did a lot of good things. Easily could have won the game.
“We’ve got to give them credit they played well; their big dogs scored. Like always, there are always things to work on. I thought 5-on-5 we played good. I thought Fehrsie’s line might have had the best game they’ve played all year. We had a lot of point shots. We did a lot of good things and like always there are things to work on.”
Debut – Rookie forward Evgeny Kuznetsov made his much-ballyhooed NHL debut on Monday night against the Penguins. In the process, he became the 500th player ever to pull on a Capitals sweater and play in an NHL game.
“I was a little bit worried the first time I stepped on the ice,” admits Kuznetsov, “but with each shift I got better and better. I understood what I needed to do and how I needed to play.
“This is my first game, but a lot of players have told me that it’s just like the Russian rivalries. [They are] just like that ones we have in Russia, so I know what it’s like.”
Playing mostly on the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson, Kuznetsov skated a dozen shifts in the game, totaling 10:22 of ice time. He logged 1:10 of that time on the power play. The 21-year-old Kuznetsov was credited with two shots on goal and one blocked shot on the night.
“I thought he did great,” says Oates. “As we talked about earlier today and yesterday, we have to be patient and realistic about expectations because it’s a foreign league for him, it’s a foreign system, he’s never played this way. He’s never played in front of this many people, really.
“For me, I want to ease him in, use him as much as possible but also be fair to him and give him a chance to grow with the team and within.”
Monday’s game marked the fourth straight contest in which Washington had a player making his first appearance in a Capitals’ sweater, but Kuznetsov was the first of those four players to make his NHL debut. He followed Penner, Chris Brown and Halak with that distinction in the last week.
Number Nine, Number Nine – Kuznetsov became the Caps’ ninth home-drafted and developed first-rounder in the Washington lineup, accounting for nearly half of the 20 players the Capitals dressed for Monday’s game.
Fehr was a first-rounder (18th overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Alex Ovechkin (first overall) and Green (29th overall) were both first-rounders in 2004. Backstrom was a first-rounder (fourth overall) in 2006 and Alzner in 2007 (fifth overall). Blueliner John Carlson was a Washington first-rounder (27th overall) in 2008 and Marcus Johansson in 2009 (24th overall). Kuznetsov was Washington’s first-round choice (26th overall) in 2010 and Wilson was a first-round pick (16th overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft.
The 300 Club – Carlson played in the 300th game of his NHL career on Monday against the Penguins. Monday’s game ran Carlson’s streak of consecutive games played to 280, the longest in Washington’s franchise history by a defenseman. Alzner is just behind him, having played 278 consecutive NHL contests through Monday night’s action.
Helping Hands – With his assist on Fehr’s first-period goal, Chimera has now picked up a helper in five of his last six games and he has 22 assists on the season.
Tonight’s helper gives Chimera a new single-season high for his NHL career. His previous best was 21 assists with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2006-07.
Carlson picked up an assist on Backstrom’s goal. He has six assists in seven games since returning from the Olympic break.
Killing With Kindness – The Caps have now allowed at least one power-play goal in six of seven games since returning from the Olympic break, and the only game in which they did not surrender a power-play goal was last Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the Bruins in Boston.
Washington didn’t allow a power-play goal in that game because the Bruins didn’t have any power play opportunities. It was the first completely penalty-free game in the Capitals’ 39-season history in the NHL.
“[The Penguins] got another power play goal,” laments Fehr. “Our penalty kill has got to find a way to be perfect for at least one night to give ourselves a good chance.”
Roster Move – At the end of the first period of Monday night’s game, the Caps announced that they had reassigned left wing Ryan Stoa to Hershey of the AHL.
30 And 30 – Each of the first two Pittsburgh goals in the game was the 30th of the season for its author. Kunitz has reached the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his 10-year NHL career; his previous single-season best was 26 in 2011-12. This is the fourth straight season in which he has netted at least 20 and the seventh time in his career that he’s reached the double-sawbuck level in goals scored.
Crosby has reached the 30-goal level for the sixth time in his NHL career and the first time since 2010-11. He is still well south of his single-season high of 51 goals, established in 2009-10.
Shots Down – Monday’s game marked the fourth straight contest in which the Penguins have been limited to 22 or fewer shots on goal.
Pittsburgh had 19 shots in a 3-1 win over the Predators in Nashville on March 4, and it had 22 shots in a 5-3 loss to the Sharks in San Jose two nights later. On March 7 in Anaheim, the Penguins were held to a single-game season low of 17 shots in a 3-2 shootout setback to the Ducks in Anaheim.
By The Numbers – Ten of Washington’s 33 shots on net in the game came on the power play … Carlson led Washington with 24:24 in ice time in Monday’s game … Ovechkin, Fehr, Penner and Backstrom each had four shots on the night, tied for tops on the team … Ovechkin led the way with seven hits … Backstrom and Carlson each blocked three shots in the game to lead the Caps … Washington won only 22 of 52 draws (42%) in the game … Eight of Pittsburgh’s 20 shots on net came from defensemen, and blueliner Matt Niskanen led the Pens with five shots on net in Monday’s game … Brooks Orpik led the Penguins with 23:42 of ice time in the game … Craig Adams led the Penguins with four hits … Crosby was dominant in the face-off circle, winning 14 of 19 (74%).