The Washington Capitals dictated play against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins for much of Monday night in what Coach Adam Oates described as “a clearly winnable game” for the home team. But this season, not even a strong outing can be counted on to add up to a win for the Capitals.
Washington fell, 3-2, at Verizon Center as the Penguins took advantage of Washington’s defensive breakdowns to counteract what was otherwise a lopsided game. The Capitals have lost seven straight to Pittsburgh dating from January 2012 and are winless against their nemesis in six tries under Oates.
“It’s very tough because guys played a good game, probably one of our better games we’ve played against that team,” said Oates, who will lead the Capitals to Pittsburgh to face the same opponent Tuesday. “To come out on the short end of the stick is difficult. We did a lot of good things in the game.”
The Capitals are at a juncture where moral victories ring hollow, though, and each loss takes on added significance. With 70 points they are one shy of the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But of the five teams separated by just three points in the battle for that spot, the Capitals have played the most games and don’t own any tiebreakers.
“Every time when we don’t win the game it’s [a] putback in the standings,” said Alex Ovechkin, who was held off the scoresheet while Sidney Crosby recorded three points as he figured in on each of the Penguins’ goals. “We now in desperate position and we going to fight through it.”
The defeat also spoiled the long-awaited NHL debut of Evgeny Kuznetsov, the highly touted 2010 first-round draft pick of the Capitals who played just two days after arriving in North America from Russia. While he started the game on the fourth line, Kuznetsov, 21, skated a handful of shifts on the top line with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and spent some time on the second power-play unit. Kuznetsov finished the game with two shots in 10 minutes 22 seconds of ice time.
The teams kicked off the game in a manner reminiscent of the rivalry’s heyday with three goals on the first five shots in the opening 3:52.
On the first shift, Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr lost a battle down low in the offensive zone that allowed the Penguins to turn the puck up ice and on to Crosby in the neutral zone. He sent a smooth pass over toward the left side where Chris Kunitz stepped easily around Mike Green at the blue line and skated in for a backhander that sailed past Jaroslav Halak’s left shoulder to put Pittsburgh up 1-0 just 46 seconds into the game.
Halak, playing in his second game with Washington, finished with 17 saves as he was outdueled by Penguins backup Jeff Zatkoff (31 saves).
“Greenie got caught a little flat-footed on the play,” Oates said. “So it takes the wind out of your sails when you’re trying to establish a good game.”
Just past the three-minute mark, the Capitals’ third line atoned for its misstep. Joel Ward and Chimera gained the offensive blue line, protecting the puck along the left wall when the latter turned and threaded a pass across the zone to Fehr as he cut through the right faceoff circle. Fehr snapped a shot past Zatkoff with 3:03 gone.
The tie didn’t last long, though, as Backstrom went to the penalty box for slashing Crosby 38 seconds after Fehr’s goal. On the ensuing power play, Crosby blasted a one-timer from the top of the right circle past Halak on his short side to put the Penguins up 2-1 at 3:52.
The start of the second period offered a shift in the home team’s favor. Washington had a steep advantage in puck possession with churning offensive-zone shifts and drew a pair of early penalties that helped generate even more sustained pressure.
“I thought we played very well offensively. We got everybody involved, we were cycling the puck,” Fehr said. “Not just cycling it but taking it to the net and making plays, and we haven’t done that in a lot of games in the last month. . . . . But at the end of the day you don’t get two points and that’s what it comes down to.”
Backstrom scored a power-play goal to make it 2-2 with 8:57 gone in the second when his centering pass deflected off the stick of Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi and past Zatkoff. By the midway point of the game, the Capitals had a 23-8 lead in shots and Pittsburgh had fired just one against Halak in the second period. But all it took to undo the momentum was a defensive breakdown.
The Penguins won a neutral-zone faceoff near their own blue line and created a breakout play that led to Crosby carrying the puck into the Washington end. Crosby cut through the Capitals’ defensemen and reached the hash marks in the right circle, having drawn both Connor Carrick and Jack Hillen toward him, and sent a back pass to Lee Stempniak, who fired the puck on net.
Halak stopped the initial shot but kicked it out with his right pad into an oncoming Kunitz, who beat Backstrom to the rebound and fired it into the open net before Halak could react. Suddenly, the Penguins led again despite firing only 10 shots and erased all the positive play Washington had strung together.
The Capitals received a prime opportunity to tie the score with less than three minutes remaining in regulation when Pittsburgh was caught with too many men on the ice. Despite that advantage, during which they pulled Halak for an extra attacker, the Capitals couldn’t convert against the league’s top-ranked penalty-killing unit.
“They’re just a very opportunistic team,” Oates said. “Controlling the neutral zone was a key for us today, and two of the goals they got we didn’t do it. The first one at the start of the game, certainly, and then the third one they get speed through the neutral zone and make a play and after that they capitalized on their opportunity. Other than that I didn’t think they had a whole lot.”
Capitals note: Washington reassigned forward Ryan Stoa to Hershey of the American Hockey League.