If the Washington Capitals had shown up in Pittsburgh to play on Monday night and mailed the game in, thinking about returning home and having four days off, possibly getting beat 3-2 or even 4-2, not many in DC would have blinked an eye. In fact, many expected it.
Who would have thought that after three games out west and a fast-paced, 39-shot win on Sunday in Buffalo that the Capitals could win in Pittsburgh on Monday night? Their record this year following back-to back games certainly was not in their favor.
After Sunday's win over the Sabres, the Caps are 4-4-2 in the first game of back-to-backs and are 3-5-1 in the second game.
Well, make that 4-5-1 now, as Washington goalie Michael Neuvirth stopped 39 shots, blanking the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 for his third career shutout and second in a row against the Crosby and Malkin-less Pens.
The Capitals came out in the first period and played like a team playing in the last game of a five-game cross-country road trip. They were out-shot 18-7, as Pittsburgh out-skated, out-hit and out-played Washington.
Then the alarm clock known as Matt Bradley went off, waking the Capitals up just in time. Eight minutes into the middle period, Bradley threw a thunderous hit on Pittsburgh’s resident punk and cheap shot artist, Matt Cooke.
The hit on Cooke drew a questionable charging call (I know I am going to hear about this from Pittsburgh's crybabies) but Jordan Staal tackled Bradley following the hit, as he should have, and thwarted any extra man advantage the Pens would have gained.
It was a clean hit as Bradley took one step and not the two required for the call. Cooke's head was up, as it better be if you're Matt Cooke and playing in the corners, as Bradley sized him up quickly and took his shot. This was, no doubt, a little payback for Cookies knee-on-knee hit to Alex Ovechkin at the end of their last contest on Super Bowl Sunday.
Neuvirth continued to stay strong but his troops had come to life after the hit and began to take the play to Pittsburgh a little more. As he has been playing since late November, Marc-Andre Fleury was brilliant between the pipes, equaling Neuvirth's first period performance.
Pittsburgh began play tonight with eight men on injured reserve, and further complicating the roster was a trade that took place before the game. The Penguins acquired two young studs in power forward James Neal and offensively gifted blue liner Matt Niskanen from the Dallas Stars for Alex Goligoski. The Pens have more than a few call-ups from their AHL affiliate, the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins, on the roster right now.
One of those call-ups may have added fuel to Washington's fire when recent call-up Ryan Craig challenged Matt Bradley to a fight. Trying to be the good teammate and take-up for Cooke, Craig seemed to take the lesson he was looking to dish out, as Bradley landed a few shots, landing on top of Craig to end the bout.
The Caps turned up the intensity and forced the Pens into a penalty, as Pittsburgh’s Joe Vitale took the gate for tripping.
Washington’s power play has been, well, ridiculously bad this season, and despite scoring a power play goal in the win over Buffalo, it looked as though the Caps would not be able to do much with the extra man against the No. 1 penalty-killing unit in the NHL this season.
However, the Capitals are 19-3-4 when they score a power play goal this season. So when Alex Ovechkin scored his fourth power play goal of the season (all on the road), and his 24th overall, the chances of going 3-2 on the road trip looked promising.
Ovechkin took a pass from Marcus Johansson, who has been playing very well lately, and took a slap shot that beat Fleury for the only goal of the game. The shot was blasted into the top of the net, thumping into the goalie's water bottle with a thud that could be heard on the Versus network telecast.
The Ovechkin goal was his first against the Penguins this season.
"I had lots of time to see what's going on, and I just fired it," Ovechkin said. "We beat a good team in a hard building to play. We got these points, just enjoy our day off."
Such eloquence from the Great Eight, but he does not get paid to give quotes.
The Capitals seem to be more and more comfortable playing with one-goal leads and did not appear desperate in the third period, trying to hold the Pens off the scoreboard. Washington played smart hockey behind its own net and in front of Neuvirth, making sure clearing attempts were just that, cleared.
Even though Pittsburgh out-shot Washington 14-3 in the final stanza, the Pens were not getting quality chances with rebounds, as Neuvirth covered up whenever possible. Washington defenders made sure there was no traffic in front of Neuvirth, clearing away the Penguins on most every occasion.
Unlike the first period, where Neuvirth had to stand on his head at times, he just had to be good in the final 20 minute in gaining his second straight shutout over Pittsburgh. In 34 games this season, Neuvirth has never allowed more than four goals. That is the most games played by any NHL goalie this season without surrendering more than four goals in a game.
The Capitals have won the season series from Pittsburgh for the second consecutive season, and Bruce Boudreau is now 11-1-3 against the Pens lifetime in the regular season. We all know about your postseason success against us, Pens fans, so just hush up and take it like a hockey fan.
The Caps have now earned points in 21 of their last 29 games with tonight’s win. The Caps are now off until Friday when they return home to host the struggling New York Rangers. That trip back to DC is going to have to wait an extra night as the Caps' flight back to Washington was canceled due to bad weather in the DC area.
When they arrive back in Washington, it should be an interesting week. Many Caps fans expect GM George McPhee to make a trade before the deadline next Monday.
I don’t, and let me ask you this Caps fans: Who in the hell is McPhee going to go out and get that could be better than what we have? Do you think that anyone else is going to come in and score goals before Ovechkin does, or do you think anyone is going to come and do a better job between the pipes than Varlamov and Neuvirth? The answer is a resounding no.
Even a second line player right now will not come in and produce any better than Marcus Johansson or Mathieu Perreault.
Maybe a character player could be had, possibly a player with some winning playoff experience. Defensively, Washington needs to do absolutely nothing. Accept this team and hope for the best. I know I am.
If the playoffs started tomorrow, our first round opponent would be the Pittsburgh Penguins. Do you love hockey or what?