Seven gloves and five sticks splayed across the Verizon Center ice, the scattered detritus of a visiting club without much choice. The Washington Capitals were already romping toward a 4-0 streak-busting victory, shutting out their rivals for the second time in a month. Now, depleted of all remaining weapons except their fists, the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed the time had come to fight.
Moments earlier, Capitals forward Troy Brouwer had tangled with forward David Perron, then tumbled onto the rink, where Perron began slugging Brouwer in the head. Another scrum ensued, the third of the final period. Bodies flung onto the pile. More haymakers were thrown. Equipment became useless in the late stages Wednesday night.
“When you get down four goals, you get really frustrated,” forward Michael Latta said. “Whether they just lost their tempers or were down enough, I don’t know. I don’t agree with some of the stuff they did, but it’s hockey. Everyone’s okay. So we’re good.”
At long last they were but only after stumbling the previous night onto their chartered plane in Columbus, reeling from a fourth straight loss and searching for answers. So Wednesday morning, following a heavily attended optional skate, forward Brooks Laich sounded the horns for change.
Forward Alex Ovechkin stormed into the NHL’s goals lead with a deflection in the first period and a rocket in the second. Braden Holtby made 27 saves, the first netminder to blank the Penguins twice in one season since 2011. Eric Fehr and Nicklas Backstrom combined to win 29 of 40 draws. And for only the second time in nine tries, the Capitals won the second game of a back-to-back.
“Our leaders led,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
The quick turnaround from Tuesday’s loss in Columbus offered little time to tweak, but they at least anticipated this. With recent trade acquisition Max Lapierre, shipped over from St. Louis to add more muscle to his new team’s lineup, making his Penguins debut and the frustrating loss still raw for Washington, the matchup promised physical fireworks.
Thundering checks from fourth-line forwards Tom Wilson and Jason Chimera whipped Verizon Center into a frenzy early, and after an early whistle, both Lapierre and forward Steve Downie skated up to Wilson and exchanged words. The Capitals hadn’t had a fight since Dec. 20, the NHL’s second-longest bout drought. That run wouldn’t last the night.
Before Wilson dropped his gloves and slugged Zach Sill off a neutral-zone draw, the Capitals’ rejiggered top line boosted them ahead. Less than five minutes into the opening period, promoted right winger Jay Beagle held strong inside the defensive zone, dug the puck out and pushed it across both blue lines. He stopped hard, kicked up ice, spun around and passed to center Nicklas Backstrom.
Patient as always, Backstrom slung the puck across the ice to defenseman Karl Alzner, whose point shot redirected off Ovechkin’s stick, tying Washington’s captain for the NHL’s goals lead with 28. It was also Ovechkin’s first regular season home goal against Pittsburgh since Feb. 7, 2010, and his sixth goal over the past five games.
In the second period, Ovechkin again cranked the ignition. With defenseman Robert Bortuzzo shelved for interference, Ovechkin stood in his standard power-play spot and waited, while Backstrom fiddled with the puck on the half-wall and passed to Mike Green. By then, Ovechkin began to inch forward, sensing the moment. Green’s feed was perfect, and so was Ovechkin’s blast, while forward Marcus Johansson trafficked in front and screened all-star goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
The fists resurfaced midway through the third period, when Latta, making just his third start since the calendar turned, dropped gloves with Downie, taking exception to several hits delivered to teammates. Downie also received a 10-minute misconduct for the scrap. He hoped to spark the Penguins. Instead, they combusted.
“You can definitely read it, just body language,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who spent 10 seasons in Pittsburgh before signing with Washington this summer. “They start getting on the referees a little bit, lose their focus a little bit. You know you’re doing your job against those guys.”