PITTSBURGH — Three leads gained by the Capitals, three leads lost and a series of third-period mistakes that allowed the Penguins to come back for a 4-3 win. It’s tough to sum up this particular contest any better than Coach Adam Oates did: “We blew it.”
Five thoughts on the loss in Pittsburgh.
1. Double trouble. What happens to the Capitals, who have one shut-down defensive pairing, when they face an opponent with two elite centers and two dangerous lines?
Wednesday night, it meant sending John Carlson and Karl Alzner to contend with Sidney Crosby’s unit and most of the time making due with the other pairings against Evgeni Malkin’s line. It made for frequent adventures in the defensive zone as the Capitals tried to contend with the big Russian center, who was playing with Jussi Jokinen and Taylor Pyatt.
Pittsburgh’s second goal, by Pyatt, came from that unit befuddling the Capitals’ third defensive pairing of John Erskine and Connor Carrick. As the Penguins moved the puck into the zone, Erskine tried to mark Malkin as he moved into the slot and at the same time Pyatt shoved off Carrick to create space for himself between the circles. When Olli Maatta centered a pass, Carrick was caught out of the play down by the goal line and Erskine had only just shifted his attention from Malkin but the realization that Pyatt was the true threat came too late.
Granted, it was the Capitals’ top defensive pairing out on the ice when Malkin went around the world to set up the game-winning goal by Maatta and it was just as guilty of fixating on the center as any one else on that play. While Pittsburgh’s elite depth up front isn’t something most teams have, there’s an unavoidable reality that the Capitals, who have long needed another experienced defensemen to help bolster depth, are trying to make due with only one pairing that offers consistent results.
2. No. 34. While knocking the stick out of Alex Ovechkin’s hands so he can’t get a shot off isn’t a bad way to approach limiting Washington’s star right wing, there’s nothing to say he won’t just pick it back up and score a goal against you anyway like he did Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik swatted the twig away in what easily could have been a penalty but play continued. Ovechkin picked up his stick from the ice just in time to receive a pass from Marcus Johansson and snap a one-timer past Marc-Andre Fleury from the left circle to give the Capitals the 3-2 third-period lead they would fritter away.
3. That passing. When Jason Chimera scored to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead with 14:31 gone in the second period it wasn’t the shot – a tap-in a foot off the blue paint – that was impressive so much as the passing display that led up to it. Dmitry Orlov sent a crisp pass from the blueline down to Johansson low along the goal line and right circle. Johansson then one-timed a pass in front of the net for a relatively easy goal for Chimera, who was able to finish with a one-timer himself before Fleury could come across the net.
4. Shorty. The aggression of the Capitals’ penalty kill has helped the group thwart off power plays and also helped create more shorthanded chances than was usual to see from them in previous seasons. When Karl Alzner picked off an outlet pass in the neutral zone to send Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer on a 2-on-1 the other way, the penalty kill was able to cash in.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was the lone player back and went down on the ice, attempting to block a shot or pass from Laich with his stick. But the veteran forward stuck with the puck and managed to pry it past Letang’s stick for a chance to beat Fleury one-on-one blocker side.
“Karl had a great gap, bumped it up to me and actually I was trying to move it to Brouw back door and kind of got a little lucky,” Laich said. “Letang slid and kind of took himself out of the play and I was able to be one on one with the goalie.”
5. Now what. The Capitals have lost 10 of their past 14 games, a stretch that goes back to Dec. 17. They sit 18 points behind Pittsburgh for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and missed out on a chance to pull ahead of Philadelphia – both the Flyers and Caps have 52 points and 47 games — with last night’s game-in-hand.
Thursday’s schedule has the potential to create movement for Washington as well. Three of the four Metropolitan teams in action Thursday night, the Flyers, Rangers and Devils, could each leapfrog or tie the Capitals with a win. The schedule isn’t getting any easier for Washington and the rest of the division has improved from their slow starts this year to make the standings picture much more complicated. Luckily for the Capitals they haven’t lost much ground yet despite their recent struggles, but if they can’t manufacture wins soon, they will.