Tomas Vokoun told his teammates before Wednesday night’s meeting with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins that he planned to be involved in the contest, not just by making saves but by playing the puck and taking a more active role in helping out the defense. It’s impossible to know whether the Washington Capitals anticipated just how good a performance the veteran netminder would have, though.
Displaying confidence from the start, Vokoun finished with 30 saves and his first shutout since Oct. 18 to lead the Capitals to a much-needed 1-0 win over Pittsburgh at Verizon Center.
It marked the 46th shutout of the 35-year-old Czech’s career, tying him with Hall of Famer Ken Dryden for 26th on the NHL’s all time list. The flawless outing, which included several key stops on Evgeni Malkin in the third period, was critical to pushing Washington into eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 46 points and a game in hand against the Penguins, who also have 46 points.
“It wasn’t scrambly,” Vokoun said of his ability to withstand a heavy workload against a Penguins squad that has lost six straight. “There was no three-on-ones and breakaways and breakdowns. It’s more about playing the right way and pressure. They get a shot off a cycle or something but you don’t get those grade-A scoring chances, odd-man rushes. Usually when you do that you have a pretty good chance to win.”
There was no denying that this meeting between Washington and Pittsburgh lacked the usual pizzazz, largely because of the absence of star players on both sides because of injury.
The Penguins were without Sidney Crosby (concussion), Kris Letang (concussion), Jordan Staal (knee) while Nicklas Backstrom (head) and Mike Green (groin) were absent for Washington. But even with those key players out it doesn’t mean these franchises like each other any more.
The hits came early and often as did a fight between Matt Hendricks and Craig Adams, who dropped the gloves less than three minutes into the contest. In addition to the hearty amount of heavy checks, turnovers were the dominant trait in what was an up-and-down contest at times.
Pittsburgh created most of the early chances, testing Vokoun, whose solid saves reflected his composure from the start. Vokoun was doing precisely what he said he would do too and ventured out of the crease to play the puck and helping to thwart the Penguins’ forecheck.
“He was on. I liked his puck handling too,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “He made a lot of good plays for the ‘D’ to get them out of trouble. [The Penguins are] a hard forechecking team and they come hard with two and sometimes three guys, I thought he played well that way and I thought he made some big stops for us.”
With Vokoun calmly finding his rhythm in one end, it would be the Capitals who got on the board first. Joel Wardpoke-checked Malkin as he attempted to enter the Washington zone to send his linemates, Jeff Halpern and Chimera, on a rush the other way. Halpern carried the puck down the left wing boards before sending a flat pass to a wide-open Chimera in the slot.
The speedy winger buried the chance and put the Capitals up 1-0, 15 minutes 25 seconds into the period. It marked Chimera’s 14th goal of the season and his first in eight games.
Few may have anticipated a one-goal game between these teams, but Chimera’s tally stood as the difference in the contest thanks to Vokoun and also the Capitals’ ability to adhere to their system.
“I think we executed our game plan tonight,” Hendricks said. “I know we’ve talked about that as being kind of a thorn in our side lately, especially those last two road games. To execute our game plan for 60 minutes and come out on top with a win was great.”
Through the second period, the Penguins continued to rack up scoring chances and on nearly every shift that brought them into the offensive zone they tried to make sure Vokoun knew they were there. Pittsburgh bumped and ran into Vokoun numerous times as the game went on, but the netminder simply shook off each altercation.
After a scoreless middle period, Washington came out throwing as much offensive pressure as possible on Marc-Andre Fleury (20 saves) and the Penguins to try to increase their lead. The Capitals came close, a shot by Hendricks clanked off the post and Alex Ovechkin put forth his best chances of the contest but couldn’t beat Fleury.
Pittsburgh followed with a furious attempt to score as time ticked away in the third. With 6:21 remaining in regulation, Vokoun made a lunging stop on a bad-angle rebound attempt by Malkin. He made a pair of saves to smother shots by James Neal on the next shift.
Then, with 2:07 remaining in regulation Malkin snared the puck once more and barreled down the right wing as bodies from both sides were strewn on top of the crease.
Somehow, by the time Malkin shot from the hash marks in the right faceoff circle Vokoun emerged from the pile and stood up to catch the puck. The Penguins wouldn’t get another opportunity of that caliber.
“We play a little bit the dice there, we could’ve put the game away but it’s nice to bounce back,” Vokoun said. “We didn’t play good — not very good game in L.A. — and this is a good bounce-back victory for us obviously, a tight checking game, a 1-0 game. The score says it all, a pretty even game and I think our effort was much better today.”
Capitals note: Backstrom was placed on injured reserve retroactive to Jan. 3 and is eligible to be taken off that list at any time. Washington’s top center has not played since that day when he suffered a head injury after being elbowed by Calgary’s Rene Bourque.