Defense optional: Penguins, Capitals combine for 13 goals

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PITTSBURGH — It was the perfect storm for the kind of wildly entertaining, completely insane game that can leave fans endlessly entertained and both coaching staffs absolutely fuming. That ended up being exactly the game the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals delivered in the Penguins’ 7-6 season-opening win on Thursday night.

On one side you had the Penguins, perhaps the most reckless run-and-gun team in the league playing in its season opener against one of its fiercest rivals — not to mention the defending champions — that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago, looking to deliver a big win to kick off the year.

On the other side you had the Capitals, another obscenely deep and talented offense that was not only playing in the second half of a back-to-back, but also coming down from the high that was a complete, systematic dismantling of the Boston Bruins on banner-raising night.

Attention to detail? Good defense? This game had absolutely none of it, and if you like scoring chances, odd-man rushes, and a heck of a lot goals, it was absolutely glorious to watch. Even if, again, neither coach was as entertained by it as, say … me. 

“You always struggle in back-to-backs with your attention to detail,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said after the game. “Our commitment to playing defense was nowhere near what we did last night. Last night we had zero high danger chances against, and that is the standard we set for ourselves, but tonight our detail wasn’t the same and our commitment to play defense as a five-man unit just wasn’t there.”

While the Capitals weren’t playing up to the defensive standard they set for themselves, the Penguins were handling the puck like it was a grenade, handing scoring chance after scoring chance to the Capitals.

Many of them ended up in the back of the net.

“We preach it daily,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan when asked about preaching puck management to his team during games. “One of the conversations we’ve had with our team  is we’re talking a lot about our team identity and we’re trying to define what that is. What i’ve said to our guys, part of the fabric of our team identity has to be becoming a team that’s hard to play against and becoming a team that doesn’t beat itself, otherwise it’s hard to win in our estimation. Our coaching staff feels strongly about that.”

He continued: “One of the easiest ways to beat yourself is to mismanage the puck. This is an ongoing conversation with our players because part of our DNA is that we have playmakers. We have players that instinctively want to make plays. They are difference makers. We are trying to challenge them that they are diligent and they have situational awareness in mind.”

The goals started filling the net right from the beginning when the two teams scored on five of the game’s first seven shots, with the Capitals scoring on three of their first four. That included goals from the usual suspects like Alex Ovechkin, and the unexpected … like Brooks Orpik, scoring his second goal in his past six games after going more than two full seasons without scoring one.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this game is there could have very easily been even more offense had it not been for some brilliant goaltending, specifically from Washington’s Braden Holtby.

And yes, there was some brilliant goaltending in a game where the two teams combined for 13 goals. Not only did Holtby make spectacular saves on Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on partial breakaways, he made the save of the night in the second period when he was somehow able to get his toe on this Jake Guentzel shot, taking away what looked to be a sure goal.

Shortly after that Penguins offense erupted again with three consecutive goals to give them a 6-4 lead that they were able to hold until late in the third period.

Just when it seemed they were going to settle things down and cruise to a win, that pesky puck management showed up and helped the Capitals score two goals — both from T.J. Oshie — just 22 seconds apart to tie the game.

The first came off of a dreadful giveaway by Malkin that left Oshie wide open in the slot, while the second was a mid-air deflection that was initially waved off by referee Eric Furlatt for what he thought was a high-stick on the puck. But after the four on-ice officials huddled they changed the on-ice call to a goal which was upheld upon review.

In the final seconds, the Penguins’ big offseason addition, defenseman Jack Johnson, had an opportunity to end the game in regulation when he somehow found himself in alone on a breakaway against Holtby. Instead of scoring, or even getting a shot on goal, he had the puck roll harmlessly off his stick into the corner, ultimately sending the game to overtime.

It was there that Crosby drew a hooking call from Evgeny Kuznetsov, setting the stage for Kris Letang‘s winner — his second goal of the game — on the power play.

In the end this isn’t a game that either coach is going to hold up as a masterpiece of hockey excellence, especially when it comes to playing the type of systematic, disciplined game they crave. It was also clear that both teams were shaking off some early season rust and haven’t yet found their complete games. That is kind of what made it all fun to watch. Just two great teams, filled with some of the world’s best and most talented players, simply trying to see who could score the most goals instead spending the entire night focussed on preventing them.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.