When the NHL and NBC scheduled the Caps and Pens for Puppy Bowl Sunday, they were no doubt hoping for an exciting sequel to the Winter Classic - all the star-power and intensity, but with decent ice (insert Verizon Center joke here). A few key injuries deprived the game of some marquee names (like "Eric Fehr," for example), but the intensity was there, and for the second-consecutive game the Caps put together the kind of effort that gives fans hope that they can, indeed, flip the switch when they need to, as they blanked the Penguins 3-0 in front of yet another sellout crowd (that makes 89 straight).
Ten more notes on the game:
- For all of the talk about how upset the Penguins were with David Steckel for colliding with Sidney Crosby on New Year's Day, they responded by sending a guy playing his second NHL game in the past two seasons to challenge Steckel to drop the gloves in the third period (which Steckel obliged, ditching his bucket and all). So, to recap, an AHLer who didn't even play in the Winter Classic fought while the rest of the Penguins did exactly what they did in response to the hit on January 1 - nothing.
- Unlike Steckel, who gave a Penguin a go when challenged in response to what they felt was a questionable hit, Matt Cooke didn't accept Matt Bradley 's invitation to fight after Cooke was done serving his two-minute minor for kneeing Alex Ovechkin. In fact, Cooke didn't skate another shift on the afternoon. Maybe he was waiting for Brent Johnson to fight this battle for him, too.
- Coming into the game, there was little doubt that the Penguins' lack of depth down the middle would be an area that the Caps - even with their own pivot-related problems - could potentially exploit, and it certainly played out that way, as the Caps won 65% of the game's face-offs, including 10-of-16 in the offensive zone, 13-of-18 in the defensive zone, 6-for-8 on the power-play and 4-for-4 on the penalty kill. On top of that, second-line center Mathieu Perreault had a strong game (highlighted by his stripping of the puck from Maxime Talbot moments before the Caps' first goal), and third-line center Marcus Johansson had a big shorthanded goal and skated like the wind all night. Meanwhile, Jordan Staal didn't have a shot on goal for Pittsburgh and won just four of the 14 face-offs he took, and didn't win a single one in the Caps' zone.
- Knowing what's wrong with the team is one thing. Going out and doing something about it is another. And while Brooks Laich certainly talks the talk, he's been walking the walk lately, with goals in each of the last two games, and both from right around the crease. Both goals are examples of what Laich needs to do to be successful, and efforts that should inspire teammates.
- Michal Neuvirth was both lucky and good in net en route to his second shutout of the season. He didn't face much rubber (just 22 shots against, though another 29 shots were blocked or missed the net), and had rebound control problems at times (and seemed to be a bit deep in his crease early on), but he obviously made every stop he had to in his first start since January 18. Was Neuvirth motivated by Pens' coach Dan Bylsma's comments about him during HBO's 24/7 series? You bet. Via CSN Washington: "Before the game, I remembered when he said that," Neuvirth said. "I kind of looked at him during the warm-up and told myself that I've got to shut these guys out tonight."
- Caps blueliner Mike Green took a Brooks Orpik slapshot in the ear late in the first period and did not return to the game (he's hopeful he can play Tuesday... but we'll see, and credit to Orpik for presumably checking on Green post-game). Credit assistant coach Bob Woods with managing five blueliners the rest of the way, and the rearguards themselves for a superb effort without their minutes (and just about everything else) leader. Scott Hannan and Jeff Schultz ended the afternoon plus-two apiece, John Carlson skated a season-high 27:46 and Karl Alzner and John Erskine stepped it up as well.
- Ovechkin had just three shots on goal on the afternoon and his line had a pretty terrible afternoon, possession-wise. His game today was about as different as the one he had a year ago this weekend as the weather was.
- One wonders if the game would have looked any different with D.J. King in the lineup. Perhaps more importantly, one wonders what D.J. King's role on the team is if he isn't dressed for a game like this.
- Kind of surprising to see Nicklas Backstrom tied for the most blocked shots in the game (with three), and on one shift, he and Ovechkin blocked shots six seconds apart. That's a pretty good indication of the overall team commitment on this day.
- Even though he took a goaltender interference penalty that washed out a Mike Knuble goal (and I'd bet my house that Paul Devorski, the referee that called the penalty, couldn't explain the rule to you with regards to when a penalty should and shouldn't be called), Matt Hendricks had another good game, which included an assist, three shots on goal, a game-high five hits and three blocked shots. What an addition he's been (and where's his extension, GMGM?).
And so a good weekend nets four points and, more importantly, two of the types of efforts that have been long absent for the Caps. Can they sustain it? Stay tuned.