With 48 games in 99 days, there’s not a lot of time to digest what happened in any single contest. So as we churn through this compressed Capitals season, I’ll be rounding up my thoughts and analysis of each game here. If you missed them, check out the game story from how a missed opportunity on the power play translated into a 2-1 loss at Pittsburgh with more on that key, four-minute power play.
>> Brooks Laich made a fairly smooth transition into the lineup Tuesday night in Pittsburgh for his first NHL game since May 2012. But while the veteran forward insisted he was ready to “throw myself in there, sort of baptism by fire,” Coach Adam Oates did indeed ease him back into action.
“I thought he played very well considering the time off,” Oates said. “He only played 12 minutes, so I don’t feel like I overextended him.”
It didn’t take long for Laich to make his presence known. While on the penalty kill in the opening minutes of the contest, Laich caught Sidney Crosby with an open-ice hip check that caught the NHL’s leading scorer unaware and sent him tumbling to the ice.
Laich started the game skating with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle on the fourth line, but only took one even-strength shift on that unit before earning a promotion. With less than eight minutes remaining in the first period, he moved up to the second unit to skate with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer.
With the exception of the hip check on Crosby, it wasn’t an overly flashy return for Laich. Credited with a blocked shot and three hits, Laich finished with 12 minutes 51 seconds of ice time, including 2:13 on the penalty kill. After this initial transition back into the lineup, though, Laich will likely see ice time back in his usual 17-19 minute range, as well as power-play time to go along with the penalty killing and 5-on-5 ice time.
“Pretty good. Been a long time coming and I’d really been getting anxious to play,” Laich said. “Had a good first period and got into the game pretty quickly. Just tough to not get the win.”
>> Tuesday morning, several Capitals talked about the need to be aggressive against Pittsburgh’s top offensive talents in order to minimize the number and quality of scoring chances they gave up. While it is of little consolation following the 2-1 loss, Washington largely succeeded at limiting its foes at even strength.
The Capitals broke up passes, rapidly closed gaps in the neutral zone and defensive zone, and the majority of the 36 shots Braden Holtby came from the outside, without traffic in front. It wasn’t perfect – there were entire shifts where the two teams did little more than exchange turnovers – but Washington played with a consistency in its own end, regardless of the defensive pairing that was on the ice.
“You do your best; that last time we played them really helped us out a lot to figure out what they do. You see they like to have their third guys swing out high by the blue line and come through the middle,” said Karl Alzner, who derailed numerous Penguins rushes by intercepting or deflecting passes. “They get a lot of good chances from right down the middle, so a couple things we keyed on was knowing that guys are going to try to make those plays.”
>> A large part of devising any game plan against the Penguins involves neutralizing their star players — in this case, mainly Crosby — as much as possible. John Carlson and Jack Hillen drew the assignment against the top line of Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
Hillen shadowed Crosby for much of the contest, trying to make sure that the Pittsburgh captain didn’t have any unnecessary opportunity. Although he was whistled for interference just 1:35 into the contest, Hillen managed to use a combination of physical play and strong skating to limit Crosby’s opportunities.
Despite the efforts of Hillen and the rest of the Capitals’ defensemen Crosby recorded assists on both Pittsburgh goals and now has 19 points during the Penguins’ 10-game winning streak.
“Any really good player, great player – he’s a great player – any time you play against guys like that you’ve got to take away time and space,” Hillen said. “If you give them time they’re going to make plays with the puck. I just tried to use my skating to try to shut him down the best I could. They’re going to get some chances; that’s just how good they are.“
>> While the Capitals’ inability to convert on the four-minute power play in the third period proved to be the turning point in the game, Alex Ovechkin lamented the missed opportunities on power plays in the first 40 minutes.
He scored Washington’s lone goal of the game on the power play 8:14 into the second period, but given the looks the unit was getting, Ovechkin believed they could have capitalized on at least one of the other two power plays to take better control of the game.
Arguably no chance was better than when Ribeiro fed the puck across the crease to Ovechkin for what should have been a prime scoring chance, if not a likely goal, while Beau Bennett was in the box for tripping. But Ovechkin couldn’t settle the puck as it hopped across the ice and ultimately whiffed on the shot.
“Chances always there. Sometimes a little bounce, a little moment stops, [we] score goal. The first power play that we have in the second period, Ribs give me a pass, but it hit ice and was a bobble,” Ovechkin said. “It was hard to hit it. In perfect world it’s hundred percent goal.”
The Capitals’ power play, which has been a primary source of strength this season and is ranked third in the NHL, went 1-for-5 in Pittsburgh.