By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; D01
PITTSBURGH -- The Washington Capitals waited eight months for the opportunity to avenge their disappointing effort in last season's biggest game.
Goals by Tomas Fleischmann and Nicklas Backstrom less than a minute apart early in the third period made certain they got what they came to Mellon Arena seeking Thursday night. The back-to-back scores silenced the capacity crowd and helped the Capitals bounce back from an early goaltending gaffe for a 6-3 win over Sidney Crosby and the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
The win was the Capitals' fifth in a row, and third in a stretch Coach Bruce Boudreau called a "great test" at the outset.
"We knew this would be a tough week and [it would] measure where we're at," said José Theodore, who won his fifth straight game with a 35-save effort that saw him yield a goal on a dump-in less than five minutes into the contest. "Philly game was a big win and then beating Detroit and Pittsburgh, the two top teams of last year, was good for our confidence. It was a good week, but we have to keep going and keep building."
With offensive defenseman Mike Green sidelined with an undisclosed injury, Washington's league-leading offense didn't miss a beat in a contest that was every bit as intense and unpredictable as the rivals' semifinal playoff series last spring, a seven-game epic that ended with the Penguins stunning the Capitals with a 6-2 victory in Washington.
Five Capitals scored goals, led by Alex Ovechkin's two goals and an assist. Crosby scored the game's first goal, but was held off the scoresheet for the remaining 55 minutes 38 seconds. Evgeni Malkin, meantime, finished with three assists.
"We just want to win this game and it doesn't matter how," said Ovechkin, who, with 32 goals on the season, is one behind Crosby. "All this group was very concentrated and I think we deserve this win. It was a pretty big game for everybody and mentally we were ready."
Fleischmann put the visitors ahead, 4-3, 2:32 into the third when he beat former Washington goalie Brent Johnson on a breakaway. Alexander Semin set up the goal with a long pass up the middle as Fleischmann sneaked behind the Penguins' defense.
Until that point, no lead had been safe. But the Penguins' Bill Guerin was whistled for interference, and hockey's best power play went to work. Only 53 seconds later, Backstrom put away the game with his 21st goal -- one off his career high set last season. The center took a pass from Fleischmann behind the net, curled in front and flipped a wrist shot underneath the crossbar.
"He probably [remembered] from last year that I used to pass the puck," Backstrom said, referring to Johnson, who had spent the previous four years as Washington's backup goalie. "So maybe I surprised him a little bit."
Green, Washington's No. 1 defenseman, missed the game because of an undisclosed injury he is believed to have suffered Tuesday.
Because of the uncertainly surrounding Green's status, the team recalled John Carlson from the minor league Hershey Bears on Thursday. The rookie later made his sixth appearance with the Capitals and recorded his first NHL point for an inexperienced Washington blue line. Three of the six defensemen in the lineup (Carlson, Tyler Sloan and Karl Alzner) had a combined 106 games of NHL service.
That inexperience, though, did not hamper the Capitals, who came out with the look of a team determined to settle an old score. They dominated the early going, out-shooting the Penguins 5-0 in the opening four minutes. But instead of going ahead, they fell behind thanks to gaffe by Theodore.
The goalie, who was coming off his best performance as a Capital, a 44-save effort against the Red Wings, misplayed a dump-in that went off his stick, squirted between his skates and slowly rolled toward the goal line. After Alzner prevented Ruslan Fedotenko from scoring, Crosby poked the puck over the line at 4:22. Still unsure of the puck's whereabouts, Theodore stood there casually looking around.
"I pretty much messed up," Theodore said. "I didn't want to stop it and play it in that restricted zone and then it went between my legs. Then I thought I had it and I didn't have it. It tested [my] mental toughness."
Boudreau added: "There was no panic. It's something we knew we would get it back. It's tough for one goal to beat us. For the first time in a long time we were really calm when on the bench when they scored."
After steadying themselves, Mike Knuble helped the Capitals rebound by doing what he does so well. He crashed the net and jammed in a rebound from an Ovechkin shot past Johnson to even the score at 1. The goal was Knuble's seventh in the past eight games.
In the second period, Eric Fehr put the Capitals ahead with the help of a lucky bounce. The big winger, who now has a career-high 13 goals, gathered a rebound at the side of the net and snapped it toward the net. The puck hit defenseman Brooks Orpik's stick and eluded Johnson at 2:22.
Penguins rookie Nick Johnson scored his first NHL goal 38 seconds later to even the score at 2. Then the teams exchanged power-play goals to send the game, fittingly, into the third period knotted at 3.
"We've met the challenge," Boudreau said. "It's a satisfying win against a rival."