|Alex Ovechkin follows through on a cannon for his game-winner. Boom, baby.|
The Washington Capitals closed out their five game road swing in style tonight, beating the hometown Pittsburgh Penguins by a final score of 1-0 in a hard-fought, defensive affair. Michal Neuvirth was simply sensational, making 39 saves for his second consecutive shutout of the Penguins since being called "shaky" by Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, and the third of his young career. Alex Ovechkin scored the only goal for the Capitals on a 50-foot slapshot with the man advantage, and the Capitals won their second straight and third in the last four, making it through a very tough five games with six crucial, hard-earned points. With the win, the Capitals pulled within one point of Division leading Tampa Bay with 74 points in 61 games, although the Lightning do hold a game in hand. The Capitals also secured their hold on fifth place in the Eastern Conference, as they moved five points clear of idle Montreal, though the Habs do have a game in hand.
The Capitals got off to a good start when their early offensive pressure forced a Tyler Kennedy tripping call just a minute and 30 seconds in for the Caps' first power play. Right off the faceoff, however, a bad pass by Brooks Laich gave the Penguins a clean break up ice, but Michal Neuvirth was there to deny Jordan Staal. The remaining time on the power play was predictably futile, with more bad zone entries and no organization. The Penguins then seized the momentum, getting many good chances on the Caps defense, but Neuvirth was again on top of his game to prevent a Pittsburgh lead. But at the 5:38 mark, Alexander Semin took an awful delay of game penalty for shooting over the glass to send the Caps to their first penalty kill of the night. This man advantage saw the Capitals control, however, and Washington got three shorthanded breaks and were just a couple bounces away from a shorthanded tally on a good penalty kill. After the expiration of the penalty, Nicklas Backstrom sprung Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway, but he was stoned by Marc-Andre Fleury with a nice pad save. Then the Penguins began to dominate again, and peppered Neuvirth from all over the ice, but the young Czech made several more great saves to keep the game tied. The Penguins' aggression earned them another power play at the 12:23 mark when Scott Hannan was sent off for holding, but another good penalty kill kept the Pens off the board. After the Hannan penalty was over, it was the Capitals' turn to make good rushes up ice, but Fleury was up to the task with good saves on both Marcus Johansson and Ovechkin in close. But Jason Chimera took a bad interference call soon after at the 17:38 mark, which sent the Penguins to the their third man advantage of the frame. Again, however, the Caps penalty killers and Michal Neuvirth were outstanding to keep the hometown Penguins off the board. The 32 remaining seconds in the period passed without incident, and the teams ended the first frame tied at zero.
After a lighting problem delayed the start of the second period, both teams got off to a slow start, with little rhythm or flow developing for either side. The Capitals were awarded their second power play at the 5:18 mark when Matt Cooke (who else) interfered with Mathieu Perreault along the half wall. The Caps man advantage got some good pressure early, but the second half of their power play sputtered again and the Penguins killed the rest of it off well. Soon after the Penguins; successful kill, Matt Bradley crushed Cooke and was then mugged by Jordan Staal; both players were given minor penalties on the play and the teams played two minutes of four on four. Alex Ovechkin got a great rush up ice early in the penalties, but Fleury was there again with an outstanding glove save to beat the Russian sniper. The Penguins then countered well, but Michal Neuvirth continued his strong play and kept Pittsburgh from scoring again with his left pad. After a fight between Matt Bradley and Ryan Craig, which saw Brads absolutely demolish the rookie, the teams began to close up and play defensive hockey; there was alot of neutral zone play and little offensive flow. But after a good burst of Capitals pressure just inside five minutes, the Capitals were sent to the power play again when Joe Vitale took a tripping call at the 15:16 mark. The Caps man advantage got off to a horrid start when Jordan Staal made two quick shorthanded rushes up ice, but Michal Neuvirth made two great saves again to bail his team out. The Capitals rewarded their goaltender just 20 seconds later when Marcus Johansson found Alex Ovechkin up top with a nice pass, and the Capitals captain leaned into a 51-foot slapshot that eluded Marc-Andre Fleury over his shoulder. The goal came at the 16:38 mark for a 1-0 Caps lead. The Caps continued to pressure the Penguins defense, and David Steckel almost put the Caps up two 40 seconds later, but Fleury recovered nicely to keep the deficit at one. After another two minutes of back and forth play, the middle stanza closed with the Caps up 1-0.
The Penguins got off to a strong start in the third period period, as Pascal Dupuis led a rush up ice inside the first minute that Michal Neuvith had to make a good save on. The Penguins kept their pressure up early in the frame, and hit two posts on good shots in the first three minutes. Fed up with his team's lackluster play in their own zone, Bruce Boudreau called his timeout at the 3:54 mark to try and energize his bunch. But it was not effective, and the Penguins continued to pressure the Capitals constantly in their own zone. With about 7 and a half left, Max Talbot broke in on a semi-brekaway, but John Carlson broke up the play with great hustle to keep Talbot from getting a shot off. As the third period progressed, the Penguins continued to get good chances on Michal Neuvirth, but the goaltender continued to stay square to the puck and make good save after good save. Inside ten minutes, the game began to open back up again, as both teams got good attacking opportunities, but the defenses and goaltenders stood firm once more. With about seven minutes left, Marc-Andre Fleury had to be spectacular on the Capitals' top trio in close to keep the Pittsburgh deficit at one, and the Penguins began to come hard at Washington again. Once more, however, Neuvirth made two excellent saves to keep the home side from equalizing. Inside of five minutes, the Caps began to employ a full trap, stacking the middle of the ice with bodies as they attempted to keep the Pens at bay. Now desperate, the Penguins threw everyone forward in a last gasp attempt to tie, and pulled Fleury with 1:10 left to play. But Michal Neuvirth was sensational once more to keep the Pens off the board, and the clock finally expired on the Penguins, sending the Capitals out of the CONSOL Energy Center with a huge two points.
Michal Neuvirth was amazing. The Czech rookie was given the start tonight despite a rough past seven days in net, and he came through in a big way for the Capitals. Even without Crosby and Malkin, Pittsburgh is the most hostile of environments for any goaltender, and Mikey passed the test with flying colors tonight. He was cool and calm all night, square to the puck, controlling his rebounds, and moving around his crease with ease. He won this game for the Capitals.
Alex Ovechkin had another great game, and that's now points in four straight and goals in four of the last six. He pulled the trigger over 20 times, and eight of those found the net, but none more important than his beautiful power-play strike. He sure isnt't going to win any trophies this year, but if he gets hot like we all know he can, the impact for the Capitals will be enormous. Oh, and he layed four hits and blocked two shots. Earning that "C" on his sweater.
The Capitals D really locked this one up tight late in the game. Michal Neuvirth was great, and bailed his team out many times, but the play of Scott Hannan and John Carlson cannot go unheralded after a win like this. All the defensemen were throwing their bodies around, blocking shots and laying hits, and kept the Pittsburgh attack from gaining the middle as the game reached it's close. This is the kind of defensive performance (and win) that can turn a season around.
The Capitals are stuck in Pittsburgh Monday night, as a large snowstorm has crippled the Steel City and has closed the airports. The Capitals will fly out of Pittsburgh sometime tomorrow and then will likely take the rest of the day off before returning to practice on Wednesday. The Caps' next game is against the Rangers on Friday night; that game is scheduled for 7 P.M.