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Capitals vs. Penguins Recap: Caps’ Struggles Put on Hold with 5-2 Win in Steel City

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After two straight embarrassing performances, the Capitals came out strong against Pittsburgh and never looked back, winning 5-2.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are just 2-7 in their last nine games, but thanks to the struggling Washington Capitals, Saturday’s afternoon game in the land of pierogis and bridges gave them the opportunity to move into a three-way tie for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Caps, however, had other plans. Like their previous two games, they got off to a great start. Unlike their last two bouts, however, Washington was able to hang on and — get this — post a solid defensive performance for the win.

And now, this...

Plus: The Capitals played fundamentally sound hockey and had a sturdy defensive corps for the first time since FDR delivered his Four Freedoms address. After allowing three goals or more in 10 straight games, the result was just two goals against in this one.

Two is less than three.

The curse is broken.

(Maybe.)

Minus: After building up a 4-0 lead, the Caps did let the Pens back in it a little bit in the third, denying Holtby of the shutout and putting themselves at a disadvantage with - surprise! - more penalties.

More notes on the game:

  1. Jakub Vrana has gotten a lot of attention for his goal-scoring this season, already topping his previous career high for a campaign with a month to go in the regular season. In the second half, however, Vrana has had some dry spells (although he has managed to keep picking up points during that span). Vrana is having a poor March overall, but he showed what his blurring speed can do on the Capitals’ opening goal, streaking down his off wing and threading a pass between two back-checking Penguins defenders to set up Nicklas Backstrom in front.
  2. The Capitals’ work ethic has been questionable during the their three months of mediocre play, but it was strong all afternoon. Less than two minutes into the game, Washington got in hard on the forecheck when Richard Panik, who has been excellent lately, won the race to the puck after a long forecheck. He then fed it to Garnet Hathaway, who gave it to a wide-open Nic Dowd in the slot for his first goal in two months. Dowd added a punishing tally in the third period on a two-on-one give-and-go with Carl Hagelin as the Capitals killed a penalty, picking up the first multi-goal game of his career.
  3. When Dowd scored, the Capitals were killing a penalty taken by Brenden Dillion for delay of game as the new Washington defenseman possibly saved a goal by shoving the net off before the puck could cross the goal line on a scrum in front.
  4. While that was probably a “good” penalty to take, the Capitals’ recent special team play is one of many reasons for their dive in the standings and they were far too careless again today, committing 7 minor infractions. Thankfully the penalty kill stepped up and they took care of almost all of them, including one minute and 25 seconds of five-on-three time, with netminder Braden Holtby holding firm and stonewalling a penalty shot (which was dubious call) in the closing seconds of the second period — something which could have produced a Not Again! collapse by the Caps. Pittsburgh dented Washington on their final man-advantage, but some of that can be chalked up to confusion and incorrect positioning after a fumbled stick.
  5. How about Nick Jensen? Last year’s trade deadline addition (who was rewarded with a heavy contract pickup over the summer) has dawn much ire this season from fans, as he’s struggled defensively and been an offensive liability. Recently, though, Jensen has been one of the bright spots on Washington’s blue line, using his speed to cut off opponents chances. He is carrying a heavy burden as one of the Caps’ leaders in ice time, hitting more than 22 minutes in three straight games. He even showed tremendous offensive flash today, joining the rush on numerous occasions and electing not to shoot from the slot to make a cerebral pass to the aforementioned Panik. Heck, Jensen almost scored from the crease late in the game.
  6. The Capitals allowed two goals in the third period, but in a way, that was a positive for the team. The Capitals bent but did not break and T.J. Oshie converted less than a minute after Evgeni Malkin made it a two goal game.
  7. Braden Holtby was barely tested until late in the second period and in the final frame, but he made the big saves when he had to and held one of the league’s highest scoring home teams to two goals. With Ilya Samsonov regressing lately, Holtby seems to be reclaiming the Capitals’ starting spot going into the playoffs.

This game wasn’t perfect. The Capitals did not solve all their woes in a single game. But against their biggest rival directly behind them in the Metropolitan Division standings, Washington showed they can still play with the big boys.

Caps-Sabres from Buffalo will be coming at you Monday night.