Capitals down Penguins in classic contest
Play the first two periods like they did Thursday night, and the Penguins probably could count on taking two points from most NHL teams.
Unfortunately, the Washington Capitals might just be the best NHL team - and they fired a salvo at the defending Stanley Cup champions with a 6-3 victory at Mellon Arena, a win fueled by four consecutive goals from Washington to close the contest.
"They're not first in the league for nothing," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "They're playing good hockey."
A fifth straight win was also marked the eighth in nine games for the Capitals (32-12-6, 70 points). Conversely, the Penguins (31-20-1, 63 points) are on a 6-10-0 slide dating to Dec. 21.
"Since Christmas, this was our best game," Penguins forward Mike Rupp said. "We weren't losing the battle for pucks."
Actually, the Penguins weren't losing anything through two periods. The score was tied, and Washington held only a 25-24 shots advantage. However, a couple of quick-strike goals by the Capitals early in the final period turned the tide. Left wing Tomas Fleischmann snapped a 3-3 tie at 2:32, and center Nicklas Backstrom extended that lead only 53 seconds later.
Backstrom's goal was one of two scored by Washington on the power play. The Capitals sparked a rally on their only other advantage chance with a goal from left wing Alex Ovechkin late in the second period.
Ovechkin also added an empty-net goal late in the game, giving him 32 on the season and 251 for a career in only its fifth season.
Recently named team captain, Ovechkin was most impressed by his reputably free-wheeling club's defensive effort over the final 16 minutes while holding a two-goal lead.
"Sometimes when we get the lead, we just stop playing, but (last night) it wasn't a team you can stop playing against, say, after 10 minutes in the third period," he said. "You say, 'OK, we won this game, and now let's go back home and enjoy our time at home.' It's not that type of team. They're an unbelievable team, and they can score goals easily."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and defenseman Brooks Orpik suggested the Capitals did not alter their approach with a multiple-goal third period lead, but Crosby noticed an improved commitment by Washington to chance-prevention.
"They really tried to shut things down," he said. "They had four guys back."
Added center Jordan Staal: "Our best asset last year was turning it around when they scored a big goal, and we couldn't do that."
Crosby, his 33rd, defenseman Kris Letang, his second, and rookie forward Nick Johnson, his first in his NHL debut, scored for the Penguins, who also received three assists from center Evgeni Malkin.
In his past three games, Malkin has scored four goals and recorded seven points after posting five goals and 18 points in 22 prior contests.
"I'm a young kid, and I learn every day," Malkin said, stressing that he is not listening to criticism from beyond the Penguins' dressing room.
Inside that room the team that overcame a 0-2 deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series from Washington last spring was in no mood to discuss moral victories. There is a Stanley Cup standard with these Penguins.
Still, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau described this first regular-season meeting between fierce rivals as "a measuring-stick (win)" for his club, which will face the Penguins three more times.
Staal seemed to agree based off this promise: "We'll be ready for the next one."