By John Feinstein
Friday, December 24, 2010; 12:10 AM
Shortly before the start of the third period of Thursday night's mini-classic between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Caps General Manager George McPhee walked out of the box he sits in when his team is playing, looking like a man in need of a good night's sleep. Someone asked him how he was feeling.
McPhee smiled wanly. "Stressed," he answered.
An hour later, just before the Penguins' Pascal Dupuis beat Michal Neuvirth in the seventh round of the shootout, McPhee and most of the 18,398 in Verizon Center likely felt even more stressed. With most of the hockey world currently focused on these two teams and their respective cities, Dupuis's shot gave the Penguins a 3-2 victory in about as dramatic a December hockey game as you are likely to see anytime, anywhere.
"Hell of a hockey game," Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said with a shrug as he walked out of his locker room.
It was every bit of that. With all the attention focused on the Capitals and Penguins in the run-up to the Winter Classic, this game had a playoff feel right from the start. Both teams have been living with HBO cameras and crews for its "24/7" series the last several weeks and that added to the tension that always exists when these teams are in the same building.
"It's something that's built over time," said Sidney Crosby, who was involved in both Penguins' goals and has scored at least one point in 23 straight games. "I think we just bring out the best in each other. We had the [seven-game] playoff series a couple of years ago and now this so it just seems to keep getting better."
Because of the Caps' stunning loss to Montreal in last spring's playoffs, it is easy to forget they dominated the Penguins last season, going 4-0 - one of the wins in overtime; another in a shootout. But they never got a chance to beat them when it mattered, and, even though the Penguins also lost a seven-game series to Montreal, they still have the Stanley Cup they won two years ago to prove in the eyes of most in the hockey world that they are the superior team.
Add that to the fact that Crosby, who is still only 23, is playing the best hockey of his career - he now has 29 goals and 60 points through 36 games - while Alex Ovechkin has struggled (12 goals, 39 points) and one can understand why the Penguins are again considered the team to beat in the NHL's Eastern Conference, even if they did come to Washington trailing the resurgent Philadelphia Flyers by a point in the standings.
"They're good, they have good players," Ovechkin said matter of factly. "They're going to take their chances. We have to take ours, too."
More than anything, the chances not taken were what haunted the Caps on Thursday night. Regular-season overtimes, played four-on-four are fun to watch and so are shootouts, but they prove little. The teams played 60 minutes to a tie in a building that was electric from the beginning and, if this was April or May, might still be playing in overtime.
Neuvirth was good but Marc-Andre Fleury was better. The Caps easily could have had two, three or even four first period goals if Fleury hadn't been brilliant, especially when his teammates kept taking foolish penalties.
"We should have won the game the first five minutes," Ovechkin said. "The chances were there."
They were there at least in part because of Ovechkin, who rammed cleanly into his old pal Evgeni Malkin before the game was a minute old. A few seconds later Malkin, whose hockey IQ doesn't always match his physical ability, took Ovechkin down with the Penguins in control of the puck in the Caps zone and got caught. Before the period was over, the Caps had directed eight power play shots at Fleury who stopped them all. The only goal of the period came on a gorgeous pass from Kris Letang to Crosby, who was parked on Neuvirth's doorstep and redirected the puck with a wrist flick so quick it was almost invisible.
"Ovie came out flying," said Mike Green, who finally broke his five-week goal scoring drought in the second period. "He really got us going with a couple of hits and gave us some momentum. But if you don't get that first goal, you lose the momentum. Then you have to work like crazy to get it back."
Green's goal at 13:43 of the second came just as a 5-on-3 power play that the Caps had for 1:51 ended. To say the natives were restless at that point is a vast understatement. At one point Ovechkin completely missed the net from in close and Green had the puck skip over his stick as he tried to close for a shot. The faithful were clearly losing faith: some boos could be heard. When Green finally beat Fleury over his left shoulder from point blank range, he didn't even raise his arms in celebration. He just exhaled.
So did everyone else in red - on the ice, on the bench and in the stands. That made it 1-1 but Chris Kunitz made it 2-1 Pittsburgh, 17 seconds into the third when Neuvirth couldn't handle what looked like a fairly harmless Crosby backhand and left it sitting in front of the net. But Mike Knuble got the score tied again shorthanded when Alex Goligoski turned the puck over - perhaps the only mistake the Penguins made in the third period after they had often been sloppy the first two periods.
"Fleury won the game for them," Green said, accurately. "There were some shots I'm not sure he saw, but he reacted. He's so quick sometimes it's unbelievable."
When Ovechkin was asked if Fleury had been the difference he shrugged. "He was good," he said. "I thought we played great tonight. Game's over now."
The game's over but the story isn't close to being told between these two teams. They will continue to share the national spotlight between now and New Year's Day - on HBO and then on NBC. Right now, the Penguins are the hot team. Crosby is the hot player and Fleury the hot goalie. Earlier in the season it wasn't that way. Fleury and the Penguins were the ones who were struggling.
"People were really on Fleury," said Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. "They were saying he was awful. I didn't think he was awful. I thought we were awful."
The Caps were pretty bad for a while - losing eight straight games before winning two in a row before Thursday. That appears to be behind them. Still, they need Ovechkin to be Ovechkin again soon. Crosby and the Penguins walked out with a win Thursday, but they knew it hadn't been easy and the team they faced isn't going to go away anytime soon or be discouraged by one shootout loss.
They will meet again outdoors in eight days. They are likely to meet again indoors when the weather is considerably warmer. Thursday night was great theater. But the curtain is still a long way from falling on what promises to be a long-running show.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.