By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 12:12 AM
All season, the Washington Capitals have searched for complete games, contests in which they set their own tone and agenda from the opening faceoff rather than wait for an opponent to dictate the course.
On Sunday afternoon against the arch-nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals did precisely that. For the second straight game, Washington didn't hesitate to attack its foe or muck up play in the corners and along the boards. It was not overtly flashy, but the passionate, blue-collar, disciplined hockey on display in the Capitals' 3-0 win against the Penguins at Verizon Center may be evidence of a team regaining its confidence.
"I think we're starting to get our identity back," said Brooks Laich, who scored Washington's first goal against the Penguins. "We're a committed group right now. The coaching staff lays out a great game plan for us, makes it easy to play. . . . It was a challenge for us [to get back on track]. Even after this, the next 10 games aren't easy. The next two or three weeks can really sway our season."
Laich, Marcus Johansson and Mike Knuble each recorded a goal and Michal Neuvirth, making his first appearance since Jan. 18 in Philadelphia, made 22 saves for the second shutout of his NHL career. Defenseman Mike Green, who left the game after a slap shot by Brooks Orpik struck him in the head near his right ear and required stitches, said afterward "it's just a cut" and that he was "fine now."
Pittsburgh was without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who are recovering from a concussion and torn knee ligaments respectively, but the absence of those star players on the opposing roster didn't diminish the importance of the victory for Washington (29-15-10), which remains three points behind first-place Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division.
The Capitals' commitment to their responsible, gritty style in pursuit of a second straight win may have been the main event on display, but of course no meeting against the rival Penguins (34-16-4) would be complete without some new form of vitriol to fuel the teams' mutual dislike. This time it came in the form of a knee-on-knee hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke on Alex Ovechkin late in the third period. Ovechkin skated away unharmed, and then he and Nicklas Backstrom confronted and punched Cooke in the moments afterward.
Coach Bruce Boudreau didn't buy any attempt to claim the collision was accidental from Cooke, who has been suspended multiple times and has a reputation as one of the NHL's more reckless players.
"It was Matt Cooke. Need we say more?" Boudreau said. "It's not like it's his first rodeo. He's done it to everybody and then he goes to the ref and says, 'What did I do?' He knows damn well what he did."
In the first period there weren't many shots or quality scoring chances, but the desire of both teams to win battles along the boards and behind the goal line kept a fast pace, punctuated early and often by players for both teams finishing their checks. Each of the Capitals' forward lines was able to create and sustain a forecheck in the Pittsburgh zone in the first period, and eventually the cycling paid off.
Laich gave the Capitals the initial lead for just the 23rd time this season when he pounced on a rebound from a point shot by defenseman John Erskine. The puck jumped directly out in front of Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, and Laich was able to maneuver around the scrambling goaltender to stuff it into the net. The tally marked the first time Laich has scored in back-to-back games since the first two games of the regular season in October.
Washington had a would-be second goal waved off in the first two minutes of the second period as Matt Hendricks was whistled for goaltender interference, but the subsequent penalty kill managed to do more than simply thwart the Pittsburgh advantage. Kris Letang turned the puck over at the Washington blue line where Johansson scooped it up and went the other way. Johansson maneuvered around Pittsburgh's Letang and Paul Martin to take a nifty backhand shot that found the upper left-hand corner of the net as David Steckel screened Fleury for a 2-0 Capitals lead.
With a two-goal cushion, the Capitals stayed the course and began to lean on their neutral zone and defensive play to stifle the Penguins as they tried to take chances and push back. But Pittsburgh wasn't able to manufacture any substantial momentum after allowing the short-handed tally, and Knuble would eventually add an empty-netter for the finishing flourish.
"All goals are important," Johansson said, "but getting a 2-0 lead on their power play, I think took them down a little bit. It was hard for them to come back, and I think we did a great job shutting them out."