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The style of tonight's game wasn't too difficult to predict before the opening face-off. On one hand you had a Caps team playing on back-to-back days at the end of a five-game cross-country road trip and still missing vital players, including Mike Green. On the other hand, Pittsburgh was also playing on back-to-back days and missing their two superstars - Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin - as well as a host of other players due to injury or trade. With both rivals in recent scoring droughts and neither team clicking on all cylinders, the game would likley become a low-scoring battle of wills.
It was exactly that.
The Caps withstood a barrage of shots in the first period, broke the stalemate with a power play goal on an Alex Ovechkin rocket in the second period, and held off Pittsburgh's flurry in the third period to win an intense, playoff-style hockey game and earn Michal Neuvirth his third shutout of the season. The contest was a hockey purist's dream, full of hitting, disciplined defensive play and excellent goaltending. The win now leaves the Caps one point behind Tampa for the Southeast division lead and three points behind Pittsburgh for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Ten more notes on the game:
While some may see this victory as hollow due to Pittsburgh missing Crosby and Malkin, they shouldn't. Certainly, the return of key players from injury and the injection of new bodies via trade will change the shape of both rosters should these teams meet again this season. But the intensity and dislike on both sides still burns bright whether it's Ovechkin and Crosby staring each other down or whether it's Jeff Schultz and Tyler Kennedy growling at one another. The crests on the front of the jerseys breed a rabid contempt with the opposing team and the absence of key players doesn't change that fact. Any win over the Penguins is a joyous occasion for
- Neuvirth deserved all three stars of the game for his effort tonight, bailing out the Caps in the first period with 18 saves and then coming through again in an intense third period, stopping another 14 shots. He had 39 saves over the course of the night - several of them of the highlight-reel variety - and he looked confident in net, minimizing rebounds. The shutout was his second straight against the Penguins, and there are no doubts that Dan Blysma's 24/7 quip about Neuvirth being "shaky" has been a motivating factor for #30. For the time being Neuvirth is not ready to relinquish the starting duties to Semyon Varlamov, and that heightened competition can only be good for the Caps as the playoffs approach.
- Pittsburgh came out motivated and dominated the first period, outhsooting the Caps 18-7 and out-hitting them 15-14. However, a hockey adage is that when you dominate the first 10 minutes of a game and don't build a lead it comes back to haunt you. Tonight it did.
- It's clear that the Caps defensive game is rounding out nicely. The team collapsed the middle and took away high scoring chances from the Penguins in the third period. However, the Caps need to play more aggressively on offense with the lead. They only had four shots on goal after Ovechkin's tally late in the second period, with no shots coming in the final 7:19 of the game.
- Win the special teams battle and you win games. The Caps won that battle tonight, going 1-for-3 on the power play and killing off all three Pittsburgh manpower advantages.
- It hurts me to compliment the Penguins, but they could have very easily played into the Caps hands and opened things up after the Caps took a lead. They didn't. They stuck to their game plan and kept on battling. That's the sign of a well-coached, disciplined team, and it's why they've played well despite the absence of their superstars.
- Credit the Penguins again (sorry!) on Alex Ovechkin's first breakaway opportunity in the first period. Although Ovechkin was able to split the middle and walk in on Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins defensemen were right on his heels and gave him no room to prepare for a wrist-shot or deke to his right. He only had his back-hand to move to, which was easily telegraphed and stopped by Fleury. It demonstrates that you should never give up on a play.
- Not surprisingly, Alex Semin had minimal impact in this game. The tight-checking nature of the contest negated his skill, which is showcased in free-flow, Run-n-Gun hockey. However he did manage his way on the scoresheet with one of the odder penalties he's taken, a cross-rink clearing attempt - with no one covering him - that sailed off his stick into the stands. He made up for it (somewhat) with his strong back-check on Jordan Staal's breakaway in the second period, which was just enough to prevent Staal from going to his backhand and getting a better shot on Neuvirth.
- It appeared that the Dirty Matt Cooke saga would dissipate with a quiet first period. That was until Matt Bradley laid Cooke out in front of the net in the second period. Bradley then followed it up with what looked to be a clean hit on Cooke in the corners, but the referees determined that Bradley took two steps and charged him with a, umm, well, a charge. In the end it all worked out: Bradley didn't cost the Caps any shorthanded time, a message was sent to Matt Cooke, and, for Caps fans at least, justice was served.
- It wouldn't be the last we heard from Matt Bradley, who answered the bell when Ryan Craig requested a dance a few minutes later. While the Versus announcers waxed poetic about Craig's "leadership" in defending Matt Cooke's honor, it was Bradley who honored "the code" by giving Craig his shot and then winning the bout.
- Today's under-the-radar player who had a great game? Not Alex Ovechkin. His goal, eight shots and four hits are par for the course. How about Jeff Schultz? 21:31 of ice time, strong play on the penalty kill, three blocked shots, and he even threw his body around a bit. Way to go Mr. Nasty!
humanity Caps fans, and winning the season series 3-0-1, including two shutouts, should only add to the happiness.
The Caps have four days to recoup from this brutally-fought game before hosting the New York Rangers on Friday night. Hopefully the team will build on this successful road trip - primarily the past two games - and start making a run to the top of the standings in the final quarter of the season. It would be about time.