The latest installment of the Capitals-Penguins rivalry appeared to get off to exactly the start Washington would have wished for. Forward Brooks Laich broke free for a scoring chance off a takeaway just 30 seconds into the contest. Captain Alex Ovechkin soon followed with consecutive knockdown hits on Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Zbynek Michalek that drove the sold out Verizon Center crowd into a frenzy.
Just 20 seconds later, Malkin retaliated with an illegal hip check on his Russian compatriot that drew an interference call from the referees -- the first of six power-play opportunities the Capitals would receive. But that's when the real star on this night made his presence felt.
Washington fired eight shots on the ensuing man advantage -- three of which were blocked by Penguins defenders -- and all but one came from the sticks of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin or Mike Green. And yet Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped them all.
Little did the Capitals know at that point, this would become a recurring theme. By the time Pascal Depuis gave Pittsburgh a 3-2 shootout victory, Fleury had turned away 32 shots, including an acrobatic glove save that stole a game-winning goal away from Green in overtime and all 12 shots he faced during a penalty-laden first period.
"It could have been much different if we don't kill those off and we're behind a couple right away," center Sidney Crosby said afterward. "Without him and his play, it's a much different outcome. At the start, at the end, all the way through, he was a big part of us finding a way to win."
This, though, should have been expected given the way Fleury has played of late. Entering Thursday night he was 14-1-1 with a 1.74 goals against average and a .940 save percentage in his previous 16 starts.
Coach Dan Bylsma called Fleury's overtime save on Green "outrageous" and said "without a doubt" this is the best stretch of hockey his 26-year-old netminder has played since he's been coaching the Penguins. Not to mention, Fleury stopped six of the seven shootout opportunities he faced.
Fleury said during the Capitals early deluge all he kept thinking about was, "If we could get out of it on a good note, we should be in a good spot for the game." That they were, and the lone goals Fleury gave up came on a point-blank power play shot from Green and a shorthanded 2-on-1 breakaway by Mike Knuble and Laich.
"He was good. He was making saves that he might not have seen and he was just reacting," Green said. "He's so quick it's incredible. He won them the game. He made a lot of great saves."
It didn't seem to matter that Fleury had given up more than three goals per game and had just a .903 save percentage in his 14 career starts against Washington. Or that the Capitals out shot the Penguins, 25-12, through two periods. Fleury deflected any praise in the postgame aftermath, instead crediting his teammates for blocking 23 Washington shots.
But maybe his teammate, Brooks Orpik, put it best: "He was our best player by far all night."
FROM THE POST
In the Caps and Pens' first meeting of the season, Washington comes up short in a shootout, 3-2. Game story »
John Feinstein: These teams provide some tantalizing theater. While Neuvirth was very good, Fleury was even better.
AROUND THE WEB
Matt Cooke on his puck-over-the-glass mishap: "If I had to do that again, you can bet money that I wouldn't be able to do that again." (Puck Daddy)
Could Washington's Winter Classic be in Baltimore? Yes, but it probably wouldn't happen. (Ed Frankovic)
Highlights from last night's game: