The Capitals (25-19-3) return home having gone 1-1-1 on their three-game trip with one more game left before the NHL all-star break. An overtime loss to the Penguins (27-17-4) wasn’t the way they wanted to close out the trip, but it offered a template of how doggedly the Capitals can play when they’re fully engaged.
“We battled back, we hung in and we battled back, I think that’s a big point,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “There’s been times in the last little while here that we’ve been a little unemotional. I think when we’re going that hard and playing that way we’re a lot better team, a lot harder to handle. . . . We need to play like that every night.”
Both teams entered the contest with their share of injuries. Marcus Johansson missed the game with an illness, further depleting Washington’s depth at center with Nicklas Backstrom already out indefinitely with a concussion. Pittsburgh, also familiar with injured centers, was without two of its stars in Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Jordan Staal (knee).
Despite those names missing from the lineups, though, the contest didn’t lack for firepower or intrigue. Less than six minutes in, the Penguins leaped to a two-goal lead.
On the first power play, Kris Letang fired a point shot that beat a screened Michal Neuvirth (23 saves) to make it 1-0 nearly five minutes into the game.
Sixty-one seconds later, James Neal fired a wrister off a faceoff win by Malkin against Matt Hendricks to make it 2-0. By the end of the period, Washington not only trailed 2-0 on the scoreboard but was being outshot, 9-4, and getting trapped in its own zone.
“The first period was terrible, we don’t even play in their zone,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t know why, but every chance when we have opportunity to go attack we just put puck in their zone and give them away.”
Early in the second, however, the Capitals ratcheted up their physical play, led by Ovechkin, who began to hit anyone in a black-and-gold jersey. One of Ovechkin’s most noticeable checks came in the corner of the Penguins zone when he left his feet to crunch Zbynek Michalek, who appeared to be falling on the play.
The animosity flowed between the teams as they exchanged more hits and a few post-whistle dust-ups, and Washington gained momentum while the Penguins’ offense ran dry. Pittsburgh didn’t record a shot on goal in the period until nearly 14 minutes had elapsed.
The Capitals got on the board 11:02 into the second when Wideman fed Brooks Laich in front during four-on-four play. Pittsburgh forward Pascal Dupuis’s stick broke earlier on the play, and Laich made the most of the available space on top of the crease to record his first goal in 14 games. With 14:38 gone in the middle period, Alexander Semin knotted the score at 2 on an odd man-rush. Suddenly, the Capitals were the dominant force.
“We seemed to generate a lot of speed in the neutral zone today,” said Mathieu Perreault, who recorded two assists while playing frequently with Ovechkin and Semin. “We had our goals off the rush, both of them. That was a big thing for us.”
Ovechkin scored on a long one-timer just 68 seconds into the third period to give the Capitals their first lead at 3-2, but the advantage wouldn’t last. Just more than seven minutes into the third, Malkin drove the puck into the zone and fought off the Capitals to set up Neal for his second goal of the game to make it 3-3. Pittsburgh continued to push as it outshot the Capitals, 12-6, in the period but would need overtime.
The Capitals had been able to keep track of Malkin for much of the game, but when a point shot by Neal bounced off the end boards and caromed to the right post he was all alone. He only had a split-second before Neuvirth would have been able to stop the puck, but that’s all Malkin needed to chip it into the net.
“We had our chances just like they did and Malkin slips away for a second,” Capitals Coach Dale Hunter said. “To find that puck coming off the backboard and so quick to get it in, Neuvy was coming hard and he would have been there. Most guys would have took another second and he would have had it.”