By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009
There was a time not so long ago when Washington Capitals fans had to brace themselves for two things when Pittsburgh came to town: a disproportionately large number of Sidney Crosby jerseys and a likely Penguins victory.
But a lot has changed over the past year, and that change was evident everywhere at Verizon Center yesterday. Penguins supporters were fewer and quieter, and on the ice, it was pretty much all Capitals, too.
Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin each scored goals and Nicklas Backstrom had two primary assists as Washington's star players outshined Pittsburgh's in a dominant 5-2 victory that snapped the Capitals' four-game losing streak on home ice to the Penguins.
"Not anymore," said Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, who improved to 4-1-1 against Pittsburgh, which had won seven of nine meetings before his arrival. "Washington people are here in droves. They're drowning out any Penguins fans that come. And I expect fewer Penguins fans the next game."
The Penguins fans who did show up had little to cheer about. The Capitals built a 3-1 lead on goals by Ovechkin, Semin and Sergei Fedorov before the game was 21 minutes old, then they put it away with scores by Shaone Morrisonn and Brooks Laich in a span of 25 seconds late in the second period.
The quick strikes prompted new Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma to pull starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who yielded five goals on 20 shots. José Theodore, meanwhile, made 31 saves in Washington's net and improved to 3-0-0 with a 2.67 goals against average against the Penguins this season.
"We played terrible against Colorado," Ovechkin said, referring to Friday's listless 4-1 loss to the woeful Avalanche. "We didn't play our game, we didn't play our system and we tried to play too cute. But tonight we played simple, played our system with great energy and our four lines played awesome. Sometimes you need to lose like that to realize you have to work harder and do a better job."
Pittsburgh all-stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each recorded an assist, but they had an otherwise quiet afternoon -- on the score sheet, anyway. The Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry turned personal in the second period. The league's past two MVPs shoved each another behind the goal early, then had a heated verbal exchange as they headed to the bench for a line change. After being separated by a linesman, Ovechkin dismissed Crosby with a mocking wave of his gloved hand.
"I don't like it personally but that's him," Crosby said. "I was skating to the bench and he pushed me from behind, so I gave him a shot back. That's hockey, and he likes to run around these days. That was it."
Ovechkin said: "It was not a cheap shot. It was a game moment. If he don't like it, it's his problem."
Boudreau said Crosby initiated the confrontations and was attempting to provoke the Capitals' bench.
"He started it," Boudreau said with a laugh. "Sidney was jawing at everybody. Every time he would come off, you see him talking to our bench and our bench talking to him. I think he got frustrated because he hasn't the freedom that he had in this building before."
"It adds spice" to the game, Boudreau added. "It's entertainment. It ends up being good for us because it gets [Ovechkin's] adrenaline going and he doesn't tire and he just keeps going. When he gets in those moments, he's tough to stop."
The Capitals also won the special teams battle. They went 2 for 3 on the power play and were equally as adept on the penalty kill. The Penguins had eight advantages, including a 55-second five on three, but scored only once.
"We've changed it and the players get it," Boudreau said of the penalty kill, which has killed off 11 of the past 12 short-handed situations it has faced. "Our penalty killing in the last 2 1/2 weeks has been really good."
The afternoon began with a booming "Let's Go Caps" from the capacity crowd -- a departure from the dueling chants between Penguins and Capitals fans that were common in the past.
Then Ovechkin gave them something to really cheer about. He opened the scoring at 6 minutes 53 seconds, extending his league-leading goal total to 43, after completing a beautiful display of passing on the power play. It began with a give-and-go between Fedorov and Backstrom, who opted not to shoot and instead backhanded the puck to Ovechkin in the middle of the circle.
After a goal by Maxime Talbot pulled the Penguins even at 1 as the teams skated four on four, Semin collected an end-around attempt by Backstrom that deflected in the front, deked Fleury to the ice and put the puck over him.
Then late in the second period, the Capitals put their rival away. Morrisonn rifled a slap shot from a tight angle past Fleury, who did not appear to see the shot. Shortly afterward, Laich flipped the puck from behind the net and it squeezed between Fleury and the goal post. Bylsma, who dropped to 2-1-1 since replacing Michel Therrien behind the bench, had seen enough and sent Fleury to the bench, replacing him with Mathieu Garon.
"I'm happy to be here as the team was built," Ovechkin said when asked about the apparent turning of the tide in the Capitals-Penguins rivalry. "We are growing up as a team. We played well on the power play, penalty kill. We just didn't give them any chance."