By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 11:37 PM
PITTSBURGH - For 20 minutes, the Washington Capitals' 18 skaters didn't look like they had arrived in Pittsburgh from the previous day's contest in Buffalo, but Michal Neuvirth certainly did. Washington's goaltender started and remained sharp for the duration against the Capitals' nemesis and allowed his team the time to rouse itself against the Penguins.
Neuvirth made 39 saves to record his third shutout of the season and second against the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin scored the only goal as Washington concluded its five-game trip Monday night at CONSOL Energy Center with a 1-0 win over injury-ravaged Pittsburgh, which was without five of its regulars.
The victory allowed the Capitals to improve their point total to 74, just one behind Southeast Division leader Tampa Bay, while wrapping up the trip with a 3-2-0 record.
"They had a bunch of shots right from the start and that's what I like," said Neuvirth, who added that the last time he recorded back-to-back shutouts against the same team came during his Hershey tenure against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh's American Hockey League affiliate. "I made a few saves early in the game and I was feeling good the whole game. I got lucky a couple times they hit the post but I think I was missing the luck in San Jose and Phoenix so it was worth it."
Both clubs entered their final meeting of the regular season struggling to put pucks in the net, with Washington failing to score more than two goals in all but one of the previous six contests while Pittsburgh could not tally more than three in any of its last six. With that background perhaps it wasn't all that shocking that this edition of the Capitals-Penguins rivalry would showcase the goaltenders.
Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury made the first eye-popping stop when he made a blocker save against Ovechkin on a breakaway that marked the Capitals' first shot of the game 9 minutes 3 seconds into the first period. Fleury wouldn't need to make too many high caliber saves the rest of the opening frame though, as the Penguins - including five players who have appeared in no more than six NHL games this season - simply outworked the Capitals.
Neuvirth made a flashy glove save to thwart Jordan Staal on a 2-on-1 a little more than two minutes later to keep the game scoreless but with just under six minutes remaining his teammates had offered little support with only two shots total against Fleury. By the first intermission, the Penguins held an 18-7 edge in shots.
"Early in the game, when they were coming at us really hard he was not allowing any rebounds," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He can corral them and smother them like he has Velcro on him, that is when I know Michal is on top of his game. He was seeing everything."
Washington found a necessary extra spark to complement Neuvirth's stalwart showing in net from veteran fourth-liner Matt Bradley in the second. Bradley began dishing out solid checks against anyone in a black and gold sweater and also pursued Pittsburgh's noted pest Matt Cooke, who hit Ovechkin knee-on-knee late in the game on Feb. 6.
Bradley sent Cooke crashing into the corner boards with a shoulder check that started a scrum after the whistle, earned a charging penalty for the hit and on his next shift after serving the minor was challenged to a fight by Ryan Craig, one of the many call-ups on the Pittsburgh roster. By most accounts, Bradley won the fight but more importantly he helped get the Capitals' adrenaline pumping.
"Our whole team was flat in the first," Bradley said. "So a guy like me who can go out and hit a couple guys and get the guys going, that's what I need to do. We didn't do that, none of us did it in the first period, so we needed to come out in the second and turn it around. That's what I tried to do."
Neither team could break the deadlock until less than four minutes remained in the second, when Ovechkin beat Fleury with a rocket slap shot on the Capitals' third power play of the game to take what would be a decisive 1-0 lead. The Capitals' star left wing now has seven points in the last six games.
Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a fifth straight game and has been absent in six of the last seven contests after he was struck in the head by a puck on Feb. 6 against the Penguins at Verizon Center. The defenseman said he hopes to return on Friday against the Rangers. . . . Matt Hendricks missed Monday's game with an illness.