The Washington Capitals may be mired in a funk, but that doesn't make them any less of an offensive threat. Sooner or later, they're going to start scoring goals again.
That they only managed one goal in a furious contest with the Penguins Thursday is part of what made Simon Despres' NHL debut so impressive.
"I though he looked confident," Dan Bylsma said following the defensively-sound 2-1 win. "Looked good, made some good plays...I thought it gave him a lot of confidence as the game went on."
Pittsburgh's rookie blue liner officially joined the team Thursday morning after reports of his call-up surfaced late Wednesday, and he was immediately thrown into the fire. Though the Capitals are scoring far fewer goals than they're accustomed to, they still possess a roster capable of landing five or six goals on any team on any night.
With the Pens down to just four NHL defensemen, Despres did his part in keeping the struggling Capitals offense down.
"He's playing against some good players in some tough situations and I though he looked strong and aggressive," Bylsma said. "We need [Despres and Robert Bortuzzo] to play against some good players, and they did."
Despres saw his very first NHL ice time as part of a shorthanded Penguins blue line. He totaled the fewest minutes on the team with just 10:30 TOI, but made them count, gathering three shots, a team-best plus-2 rating and an assist.
"It was a good first game, I enjoyed it a lot," said Despres. "It was a whole lot of fun, and I'm happy we won."
In 22 games with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, Despres registered three goals, four assists and a plus-three rating. It's the first season playing pro hockey at any level for the 20 year old, who has garnered high expectations with standout performances in each of the last two training camps.
The 30th selection of the 2009 draft, Despres is known for an offensive flair that is perhaps bettered only by Kris Letang amongst Pittsburgh defensemen. He got into the scoring act quickly, picking up an assist on Chris Kunitz' game-winning goal.
"It wasn't the nicest assist in history, but I'll take it for sure," said Despres.
Letang and Zbynek Michalek, perhaps the Penguins' best offensive and defensive defensemen respectively, are missing with largely undisclosed injuries. There is no timetable for their returns to the lineup.
With Ben Lovejoy and Brian Strait already nursing injuries, the Pens are down to just four healthy NHL defensemen. Despres joined fellow rookie Robert Bortuzzo on the blue line, replacing Alexandre Picard. Bortuzzo also did well against Washington, gathering one shot on goal and a plus-one rating.
The rookies were just a small part of the overall defensive effort. Paul Martin and Deryk Engelland played perhaps their best games of the year, logging huge minutes while anchoring the defense in the absence of its biggest guns.
Martin totaled over 28 minutes of ice time and earned the game's first star, while Engelland was a force on the penalty kill and took time and space away from Washington's elite scorers.
The Penguins limited the Capitals to just 17 shots on goal, the second straight game in which the Capitals registered fewer than 20 shots and the second time in as many meetings that the Penguins held them below the 20 mark.
"I think any time you can keep that team under 20 shots I think you're playing well defensively," Bylsma said, "but you're also playing well with the puck and going the other way."
The Penguins have outshot the Capitals 76-36 in two meetings this year, yet each team has scored four goals. Tomas Vokoun put forth another solid effort, but it wasn't enough to overcome his team's absentee offense.
The Penguins will want to replicate their stifling defensive play Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes, who beat the Penguins 5-3 in November. It was the first contest this season in which the Penguins allowed more than three goals.
The Hurricanes will be the second club in a row to face the Penguins while featuring a new head coach. Following Thursday's loss, Capitals head coach Dale Hunter is 0-2-0, as is new Hurricanes bench boss Kirk Muller.
Despite having just the second-fewest standings points in the East, the Hurricanes always manage to play the Penguins hard. Many contests between these clubs are high-scoring, fast-paced affairs.
Though they can give the crowd a show in another run-and-gun affair, the Pens would likely prefer to let their defense put forth another impressive effort and limit the Hurricanes' chances.
If Despres can contribute to another sound defensive game, the Pens won't need to hold their breath until Letang and Michalek return.
"I mean, we just play the system, play physical, good in the D zone," said Despres. "It's easy to play here. Everyone talks a lot, and it's fun."