By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; D01
Mike Knuble scored one goal Washington Capitals' fans have come to expect from the bang-and-crash winger. But he scored another goal that no one -- not even Knuble himself -- could have anticipated.
Knuble netted his first career shootout goal in the fourth round to lift the Washington Capitals to a thrilling 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, their third win over the defending champions this season.
After blowing a one-goal lead late in the third period, then falling behind 2-0 in the shootout, the Capitals rallied on goals by Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Knuble, a player known more for his brawn. He gave Marc-André Fleury a little head fake, then buried a wrist shot over the Penguins' goalie's shoulder to give the Capitals 108 points, matching last season's franchise record with nine games remaining.
"I don't know what it was, man," said Knuble, who had been 0 for 4. "I don't like [Coach] Bruce [Boudreau] putting me in that situation. I didn't have a shift in overtime, then he's tapping me on the shoulder. I'm glad he didn't tell me any earlier, because I didn't have time to get nervous. That was a first and probably a last."
Boudreau said he played a hunch.
"I just thought he would score," said Boudreau, whose team is 5-4 in games decided in the shootout this season. "A lot of times when you don't have time to think, it's an advantage. He went in and did what he does -- shoot the puck."
Knuble's goal capped a victory Washington had been in position to close out in regulation.
An unassisted short-handed goal by Alexander Semin and a redirection by Eric Fehr 1 minute 56 seconds apart early in the third period turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. But nothing comes easily against the feisty Penguins. And neither did this win.
José Theodore (39 saves) made an eye-popping stop on Jordan Staal with 3:21 remaining, drawing an ovation from the 50th straight sellout crowd at Verizon Center. But just seconds later, Staal knotted the score with a wrist shot over Theodore's glove from the middle of the circle. It was the first third-period goal the Capitals have surrendered to the Penguins this season.
"They were a determined gritty bunch," Boudreau said. "That's why they're the Stanley Cup champions."
But what the Capitals showed Boudreau in the shootout impressed him more.
"It's never say die," he said. "I don't know how often you go down 2-0 in the shootout and you come back. It's [not] thinking, 'Aw man, we're down 2-0, there's no way'. I don't think we ever think that."
The Capitals didn't have much time to savor their victory. They had an 11:30 p.m. flight to Raleigh, N.C., where they'll face the Carolina Hurricanes at RBC Center on Thursday.
It was unclear which goalie would get the nod against Carolina. But Boudreau hinted that he would turn to rookie Semyon Varlamov, despite Theodore's dominant performance.
Theodore, in fact, is on a historic roll. He improved to 17-0-2 in his last 19 appearances, the longest unbeaten streak without a regulation loss in franchise history and for any goaltender in the past decade.
"I felt really solid since the start of the game," Theodore said. "Then in the shootout, we scored some big goals."
Theodore was the difference during a first period in which the Capitals were outshot 12-2 in the opening eight minutes and 17-9 in all against the injury-depleted Penguins, who were without Evgeni Malkin (sore foot) and Sergei Gonchar (illness).
Theodore was sharp, particularly on the Penguins' two power plays, stopping all four shots he faced to send the game into the second period scoreless.
Only 69 seconds into the second period, Knuble gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead with his first goal -- and third point -- in nine games. The rugged winger crashed the Penguins' net, tracked a pop fly rebound off Fleury, then jammed the puck off the post and in.
The lead didn't last long. Seventy-two seconds later, Maxime Talbot redirected a point shot from Brooks Orpik past Theodore to knot the score, 1-1.
Late in the second period, the Capitals' penchant for penalties caught up to them. With Tomas Fleischmann in the penalty box for the second time (both for tripping), Guerin put the Penguins ahead, 2-1, when he finished off a perfectly placed pass from Sidney Crosby, who kicked the puck to his stick at full speed before dishing it.
As sweet as the Capitals' comeback was for Boudreau, he still wants to see his team cut down on the penalties as they prepare for the playoffs.
"Five penalties is too many," Boudreau said. "That's two games in a row and it's stick penalties so that's something we've got to cure."
Capitals note: Brooks Laich's consecutive game streak of 257 came to an end. The winger will miss at least two contests, Boudreau said, after he was struck by a puck on the left side of his face during Tuesday's practice. Boudreau said he hopes Laich will be able to practice Friday, then suit up Sunday. "It's not a pretty face," Boudreau cracked. "And it was a pretty face." Laich watched from the press box, sporting a bruise and significant swelling under his eye as well as six stitches on his cheek.