By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 1:01 AM
The Washington Capitals entered Thursday's contest against their main rivals speaking of the litmus test the Pittsburgh Penguins would provide. It was also a chance for the Capitals to make a statement, with a sellout crowd and the entire hockey world watching.
Ultimately, though, it's hard to say that the contest, which featured playoff-like atmosphere and fervor, ended in a fashion that put one marquee team much further ahead of the other. The Penguins captured a 3-2 win at Verizon Center on a goal by Pascal Dupuis in the seventh round of the shootout, in what hardly can be considered a disappointment for Washington even though it reads as a loss in the record book.
"If they can play like that every night I'll be happy," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of the first meeting between the teams, who will face off again in eight days, outdoors at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh for the Winter Classic. "They had passion, they played arguably right now the best team in the league . . . to a standstill. Whether it's a moral victory or whatever, you'd love the two points, of course, but I thought we played very well and it was one very hard-earned point."
The contest almost avoided the final tie-break activity though, when Mike Green appeared to wrap the puck around an outstretched Marc-Andre Fleury for what would have been the game-winner in overtime and his second goal of the night. But Fleury, who finished a staggering performance with 32 saves, got his glove over the puck and video review ruled that there was never any conclusive evidence that the puck crossed the goal line.
To even reach overtime and the shootout required two comebacks from single-goal deficits by the Capitals. Washington outchanced and outshot Pittsburgh for the majority of regulation, particularly in the first two periods, but just 17 seconds into the third frame, Chris Kunitz scored to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead.
Rather than shrink, Washington maintained its commitment to a defensive game in its own end and kept plodding away offensively in an effort to crack Fleury in the opposite net.
"I think even those low-scoring games you've got to stay patient and stick with the plan," Mike Knuble said. "As a player you start getting antsy and you have to realize that's the way it is. It's probably a little of an adjustment for certain guys, when it's not go, go, go all the time. I think as a group we're more and more happy with the direction that we're going."
That diligence paid off when the Capitals couldn't seem to find a way past Fleury but caught a break on the penalty kill. Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang whiffed on a shot that sent Brooks Laich and Knuble on a two-on-one the other way. Laich passed from the right boards to Knuble, who backhanded a shot between Fleury's legs to tie the contest at 2 with more than five minutes remaining in regulation.
It was a resurgence made possible by a constant sense of drive - the teams combined for 68 hits - and composure as the Capitals never seemed to panic regardless of how many power plays drifted past without a goal or how improbable the Penguins' goals off rushes, by Kunitz and Sidney Crosby, were. In total, Washington scored just one goal in slightly more than eight minutes on the power play - a total that included 2 minutes 39 seconds of five-on-three in the Capitals' favor.
Pittsburgh took an initial 1-0 lead on a perfectly-timed deflection by Crosby from the goal line to the right of the Washington net less than four minutes into the contest. Aside from the play that allowed the tally, the Capitals spent the bulk of the period testing Fleury, who improved to 15-1-1 in his past 17 starts, but with no success.
"He was good. He was making saves that he might not have seen and he was just reacting," said Green, who scored the Capitals' first goal. "He's so quick it's incredible. He won them the game. He made a lot of great saves."
In the second, Michal Neuvirth, who finished with 25 saves in his fourth consecutive start, did his part to make sure Pittsburgh couldn't expand its lead. He stretched out to stop Evgeni Malkin on a penalty shot attempt and then again moments later on a backhand attempt to ensure that the Capitals would only need to climb out of a one-goal hole.
As 1:51 of a two-man advantage evaporated in the middle of the second stanza without a shot by the Capitals, it seemed as though Washington might never seize the chance to tie the contest. But in the waning seconds of the regular five-on-four power play that remained, Green cranked a shot from the slot past Fleury's glove to make it 1-1 and charge the Capitals. It was Green's first goal since Nov. 14 against Atlanta, a span of 15 games.
The fast pace and intensity would only build for the rest of regulation, through Kunitz's and Knuble's goals all the way to overtime and the shootout. And although the result was disappointing, the Capitals believe they passed their midweek test.
"It was more of the compete level and the passion for our game that our team needs," Green said. "We're getting chances and we're creating and that's what we need to do to be successful. It's not the outcome that we wanted, but we played well tonight."