The game was missing some of its biggest stars. The play on the ice for much of the night was ragged. The two best players on the ice were the two goalies. Still, two points were on the line between a Washington Capitals team that has struggled all season to find an identity and a Pittsburgh Penguins team that is wounded to its very core. After a lackluster and sloppy 55 minutes that featured more turnovers and missed entry passes than highlights — for either team, the homestanding Caps held on at the end for a 1-0 win, leapfrogging their arch-rivals to gain eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Jason Chimera beat Marc-Andre Fleury on a breakaway at 15:25 of the first period for the game’s only goal.
Fleury (20 saves) and Caps netminder Tomas Vokoun were the two stars of this one, with both goalies trading save after great save at either end. Vokoun might have played his best game of the season, consistently and confidently pushing pucks aside or quashing them altogether. He saved all 30 shots against, including several in the last five minutes after the Pens killed a late penalty to gain momentum back in their favor.
Especially sparkling was the save Vokoun made on Evgeni Malkin late, standing up from being roughed up by another Pens forward to make the save upstairs. “I was scrambling in the crease. I was fortunate enough to raise my body and it hit me in the chest. It was a good save at that point of time. They’re a tough team. They’re missing some good players, but they are still a good team. It’s not going to be easy any night against Pittsburgh.”
The shutout was Vokoun’s 46th of his career, tying the legendary Ken Dryden for 26th all-time in the NHL.
The win kicks off a four-game homestand in perfect fashion. No hockey player likes to look forward too far, preferring to concentrate on the game at hand. But the Caps know that with Pittsburgh (eighth in the conference), Tampa Bay (13th), Carolina (15th) and the New York Islanders (14th) visiting Verizon Center in succession, now is the time to string some wins together and get on a roll as they head into the second half of the season.
“We kinda layed an egg there on the road a little bit,” said Chimera, who potted his 14th of the season. “We saw this four-game homestand and you want to start with a big win and we did that. It was nice to get the win. Against Tampa, they’re going to come in angry so we gotta keep on our toes and this is the week to really “make hay” and keep ourselves out there and not look back from now on.”
Defenseman Karl Alzner concurred. “We’ve been doing pretty good at home and we’re happy about that. I think that we have to take advantage of the chances that we have to play in this rink because we haven’t been really coming to play enough on the road.”
The Caps are two completely different teams whether they’re home or away. After last night’s win, the Caps are 15-5-1 at Verizon Center, a 121-point pace. On the road it’s a different story. Their 7-12-1 record translates to a dismal 61.5 point pace. The fine folks at Japers Rink Wednesday posted the glaring numbers; they’ve got the league’s best home power play and second best penalty kill. On the road? Try 25th and 27th.
That makes this homestand vitally important. The team has talked about wanting to get on a roll and gain momentum in the standings and this is the perfect time to do so. The Penguins came in here banged up beyond belief and the Caps handed them their sixth straight loss. Tampa Bay, Carolina and the Islanders are the only teams in the East with fewer road wins than the Caps. The time is now.
Asked if the Caps need to take advantage of the schedule the way its set up, Mike Knuble said, “Yeah, we have to. It’s pretty obvious we’re struggling on the road. You’ve gotta get your points somewhere and gain some ground somewhere. We’ll worry about our homestand and how we do here, then we’ll worry about how we do on the road. I don’t think we’re a fragile team on the road, but we just haven’t had much success.”
That lack of success is evident, which makes dominating at home that much more meaningful. Until the Caps can figure out what causes them to play so poorly when they travel, they must take every opportunity to accumulate points, especially against teams below them in the standings.
CAPS NOTES: Defenseman Tomas Kundratek handled himself well in his NHL debut, skating 11:09 on 16 carefully managed shifts with veteran defenseman — and Czech countryman — Roman Hamrlik. He was credited with one shot, one block and one giveaway. “It was probably the best day of my life,” Kundratek said afterward. “I had a little goosebumps [during warmups], it was such a great feeling.”
The Caps win 56 percent of the draws, blocked 21 shots and registered 39 hits. They have not surrendered a power play goal in their last 10 home games (26 attempts).
Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward assisted on Chimera’s goal. The play started when Ward poke-checked Evgeni Malkin at the Caps blue line when the Pittsburgh forward dangled for too long, leaving his defensemen out to dry and out of position, causing the odd-man rush back the other way.
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