With just 20 games to play in this lockout-truncated season and sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, if the Washington Capitals have any hope of resurrecting their moribund playoff hopes, they need to secure every single point available to them. For the better part of almost 48 minutes, the Caps were playing even with the Pittsburgh Penguins, their arch-enemies — on hostile ice.
But a wasted four-minute power play in the third period led directly to an opportunistic goal the other way, and the Caps fell that much further behind the eight-ball, losing to the Penguins 2-1 before a raucous and appreciative crowd at Consol Energy Center.
The win is Pittsburgh’s 10th in a row, and solidifies their hold on the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The loss drops the Capitals to 12-16-1, 13th in the conference, seven points out of a playoff spot and nine points off the Southeast Division lead, held by their opponent for the next two games, the Winnipeg Jets.
The Pens’ Matt Cooke gave the Caps a four-minute man-advantage at 7:49 of the third. The feisty winger got the first two minutes for boarding Alex Ovechkin on a somewhat questionable call, then another two for unsportsmanlike conduct after screaming at the refs from the penalty box, then slamming the door behind him in disgust.
The Caps could not take advantage of the situation.
Time after time, the Caps had trouble even entering the Penguins zone, with the Pens really pressing the puck at every opportunity. The Caps managed a miserly two shots on goal during the advantage. At the last precious seconds of the power play ticked off the clock, the puck — as it so often does — found the stick of Pens captain Sidney Crosby (two assists). Crosby carried up ice and found Cooke racing to the left wing after exiting the penalty box. Cooke calmly held until defenseman Matt Niskanen could join the rush and Cooke hit the defenseman in stride in the high slot.
Niskanen’s slap shot rose over the prone Karl Alzner, who had laid down in attempt to block the shot, and avoided Braden Holtby’s catching glove to break the tie, seize all the momentum, and eventually prove the game-winner for the Penguins.
Though plenty of time remained on the game clock, for all intent and purposes, it was over.
The teams played to a scoreless tie in the first period, with neither team really pressing an advantage. The best scoring chance for either team came with just over two minutes remaining, when Pascual Dupuis and Sidney Crosby came into the Caps zone with speed. Dupuis held the puck long enough to find Crosby breaking for the net and slipped a pass through that would have been a gimme for Crosby, but a back-checking Troy Brouwer was able to tie up the perennial All-Star at the very last to break up the play.
The Penguins held a slight shot advantage at the close of 20 minutes, at 11-10, but both goalies were sharp to start.
The Caps drew first blood, midway through the second period. With Penguins rookie Beau Bennett off for tripping, Washington’s highly-rated power play struck. Mike Ribeiro, as he so often has this season, started the play, finding Troy Brouwer nestled at the hashmarks just off the right wing circle. Brouwer’s shot bounced off Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (28 saves) right to the sniping Alex Ovechkin, who snapped the bouncing puck off the left post and behind Fleury to put the Caps up.
It was Ovechkin’s 12 goal of the season and Ribeiro’s 18th power play point, tops in the NHL.
The power play opportunity put the refs at high notice, and less than a minute later they nabbed Jason Chimera for a hooking call that might have gone unnoticed earlier in the game. Regardless, the Caps PK did a solid job for much of the duration, but ran out of steam at the last. Crosby gathered a puck in the left wing circle and instead of shooting, found defenseman Paul Martin in perfect position in the high slot. Martin’s slap shot evaded Holtby (34 saves), who had trouble seeing through John Carlson to pick up the play.
The Capitals travel to Winnipeg for back-to-back matchups with the Jets at 8:00 pm Eastern Thursday and Friday, which could very well prove to be either the jump-start the Caps need to get back into a contending position, or alternatively be the final nail in their coffin for 2013.