PITTSBURGH — Ask any player on either side of the Capitals-Penguins rivalry and they’ll tell you the same thing: These are always viewed as statement games, regardless of who is in the lineup. It held true Thursday night, in the teams’ first meeting of the 2011-12 season, with Washington looking to knock off a Pittsburgh club that entered the evening with the best record in the NHL.
The Capitals overcame a sloppy first period and an early Penguins lead to capture a 3-2 overtime win at Consol Energy Center on a game-winner by Dennis Wideman. Washington (3-0-0) has earned points in nine straight regular season games in the Steel City.
Tomas Vokoun was quietly brilliant in his second performance in a Capitals jersey, making 39 saves after allowing a goal on the Penguins’ first shot, while Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble each scored their first goals of the season.
But what will likely be most remembered from this latest installment was a fight between Jay Beagle and Pittsburgh’s Arron Asham, who knocked out the Capitals’ fourth-liner, then taunted him as he lay on the ice.
“It’s a fight. It’s hockey game but again it was pretty tough. Beagle, like, he’s just first-year NHL. Asham, I don’t know if he knows that or not, but just put him on the ice,” Ovechkin said. Beagle is “not a fighter, it’s not his job to fight. I don’t know, it looked kind of not respectful for players on different team. I don’t know what people think, but I think it’s not respectful.”
A bona-fide tough guy with 83 regular season NHL fights to his credit, Asham pursued a scrap with the 25-year-old Calgary native after Beagle got into a shoving match with Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang nearly six minutes into the third period. Beagle, who had never fought in the NHL regular season prior to this game, took the first few swings, but Asham dropped the winger when he connected with two straight right hooks.
As Beagle lay facedown on the ice, Asham made a motion with his arms like a baseball umpire signaling safe, then put his hands together and tilted his head against them like a child would to signify sleeping. The sellout crowd of 18,512 clad in black and gold roared.
“It doesn’t surprise me. I’m not surprised by a lot of things that happened,” said usually mild-mannered Karl Alzner, a close friend of Beagle’s. “Just some of the comments by their fans and stuff is just unbelievable. It’s classless.”
Beagle, who got up with a swollen and bloody mouth and was helped to the dressing room by teammates, was assessed a roughing minor and five minutes for fighting. Asham, who began jawing with Ovechkin, in the box to serve the extra penalty, was given five minutes for fighting.
Coach Bruce Boudreau asked the referees to clarify their interpretation of the instigator rule, though he said after the game that he didn’t see the gestures Asham made. Knuble, a former teammate of Asham’s in Philadelphia, didn’t comment directly on the gestures and said he felt the Penguins winger is “a pretty honest player” that was fulfilling his role by defending a teammate.
After the game, Asham acknowledged that his gestures after the fight were in poor taste.
“My gestures after it was done, I was into the game, it was uncalled for. Classless on my part,” he said. “You know, I think those guys over there know that I’m not the kind of guy to be going off. It was a big game, I wanted to get my bench going — classless move on my part.”
Even without the ruckus, the contest had its share of drama.
Vokoun helped pull his new team through a Penguins squad that refused to yield. Pittsburgh (3-0-2) dominated both the first and third periods, outshooting the Capitals 12-3 in the opening frame and 18-3 in the third despite having played five games in eight nights compared to three in 11 for Washington.
“He was the difference for us,” Knuble said of Vokoun. “Even in the first period we finished 1-0 — could have been down three or four after the first. Then he made some big saves in the third, too, when they really started to gain some momentum and pushed back against us. He was a big factor tonight.”
James Neal scored both Penguins’ goals, the first 2 minutes 27 seconds into the contest as they dictated the tempo and prevented Washington from finding any traction offensively. At the start of the second, though, Knuble crashed the net and the puck went off a defenseman and Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson to tie the score at 1. Ovechkin’s tip of a wicked point shot put the Capitals up 2-1 only 40 seconds into the third, but after gaining the lead they tried to protect it rather than increase it.
Neal scored again with less than four minutes remaining to force overtime.
“It happens an awful lot, just trying to protect the lead” rather than build on it, Boudreau said. “Then you sort of say, ‘Okay, let’s make sure everything goes right,’ and then you take a couple penalties. So now you’re on your heels because the crowd is getting into it and they get the momentum. Then the fight took place and now the crowd’s really into it. But I was really proud of our guys, the way they were into the game and they stood together and they were all into it. It was good for us to see.”
Capitals note: Goaltender Michal Neuvirth did not make the trip to Pittsburgh because of a lower-body injury, prompting the team to recall Braden Holtby from Hershey to serve as backup Thursday. Coach Bruce Boudreau said Neuvirth’s condition had not worsened and he hopes the 23-year-old will practice Friday.