The Washington Capitals’ regular season dominance of the Pittsburgh Penguins continues with their 3-0 win this afternoon, as the game ended with the teams’ hatred boiling over in some ugly ways.
The game concluded with some controversy, as Matt Cooke delivered a dirty knee-to-knee hit on Alex Ovechkin with a few minutes left in the third period. Many Penguins fans were quick to point out the fact that Ovechkin delivered a knee-to-knee hit of his own on former Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar during the teams’ 2009 playoff series, but such “eye for an eye” logic is dangerous. Ovechkin was able to play in the game’s waning moments, which might reduce the chances that Cooke will face some discipline from the NHL.
Cooke’s actions were both unfortunate and typical, but it wasn’t the only moment of tension in the game. While Nate Ewell explained that the fight was actually rooted in a college hockey rivalry, others will view Tim Wallace’s fight with David Steckel as payback for a Winter Classic collision between Steckel and Penguins star Sidney Crosby. You might remember that the much-debated check contributed greatly to Crosby’s current concussion conundrum.
While the Penguins and Capitals were feisty during the game, the Pittsburgh offensive attack was absolutely punch-less. Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth was sturdy when called upon, even if he wasn’t tested particularly often during the game. He made 22 saves to shut out the Pens.
Brooks Laich scored the first (and game winning) goal in the final minutes of the first period and Marcus Johansson gave the Caps a nice cushion by fluttering a backhanded shot past Marc-Andre Fleury on the penalty kill. Mike Knuble got revenge for goal disallowed by a goalie interference penalty and a missed high stick calling by icing the game with an empty-netter.
Fleury made some big saves to keep his team in the game, but they rarely punctured the Capitals’ stingy defense in this contest. If anyone wants proof that Washington is adapting their game to conform to the type of hockey that commonly works in the playoffs, this would be a good contest to point to.
It will be wise to keep an eye on two of the Capitals’ biggest stars over the next two days, as Ovechkin was shaken up by that knee-to-knee hit while Mike Green never returned to the game after taking a puck to the ear (or side of his head) in the closing seconds of the first period.
This win places Washington one point behind the Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, although the Bolts have more wins (32 to 29) and one game in hand. Still, the Caps must feel confident after beating the Penguins and Lightning in one strong weekend.
The Penguins remain three points behind the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference’s top team, the Philadelphia Flyers. Pittsburgh came into the game riding a five-game winning streak, but you have to wonder if this is the first sign of struggles for a team that won’t score many easy goals without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.