Justin K. Aller
The Pittsburgh Penguins complete a sweep of the season series against the Washington Capitals with a 2-1 win Tuesday night. Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen chipped in goals and Marc-Andre Fleury was strong in net for the Pens.
The rise and fall of momentum inside a hockey game can be quite astounding. In the third period of a tie 1-1 game, the Washington Capitals seemed to be in the driver's seat when Matt Cooke got a minor penalty for "boarding" Alex Ovechkin and then Cooke got two more minutes tacked on for unsportsmanlike conduct for slapping the puck after the whistle in disgust. The Caps would get four minutes to try to score their second power play goal of the night to push ahead.
But it wasn't to be. Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins penalty killers rose to the occasion, killed all the time, and as soon as Cooke stepped out of the box, Pittsburgh had the puck and were rushing up the ice. Sidney Crosby played it to Cooke, who made a good pass to find a streaking Matt Niskanen.
Niskanen lifted his head, found his spot and shot over a sliding defender and past goalie Braden Holtby.
Just like that, what could have tipped the game to the Capitals had suddenly shifted it to a Penguins advantage that they'd never look back from, holding on the rest of the way for a 2-1 win, the team's 10th straight.
The game was a microcosm of sorts of the whole lockout shortened 2013 season. Both teams were playing their third game in four days, and there wasn't a tremendous display of skill or explosive skating out there. Both got a ton of shots, and had some good goaltending. Ovechkin flashed when he was able to find a bouncing, deflected puck and put it to the back of the net quickly and with authority. Crosby, ever the nemesis, had a few plays controlling the puck and also displayed good vision on the Penguins first goal, when he made a pass back to Paul Martin.
Some more thoughts on the game:
- The Caps just seem to be out of sorts. They have talented pieces, but no real identity. Their season has been ravaged by injuries, but every team has injuries (the Pens played without last year's MVP and likely a guy who could be this year's Norris trophy winner). Washington has some parts, but somehow the whole is less than the sum this season.
- Crosby won 16 of his 26 faceoffs for a very solid 62% rate. The rest of the centers, not so much (14 for 35 for 40%). Well, except Brandon Sutter, who won 64% of his 14 draws.
- Paul Martin had a game high 28:14 of ice-time, 4 shots on goal, 4 blocked shots and a hit. More importantly he had excellent body and stick positioning on Ovechkin and the Caps top line all night long, limiting them at even strength to basically nothing. Big time game from Martin, with his goal being down the list of his most impressive moments.
- Martin and Brooks Orpik each played 6:26 short-handed, no other defensemen had more than 1:47. And the Caps failed to score on the PP during that 6:26. As always, and especially with Kris Letang out injured, the Pens lean on their big guys extremely hard. Tonight, they were up to the task.
- The Caps had 29 shots on goal, with 34 more either getting blocked or missing the net. That's one way on cutting down scoring opportunities. Fleury did look really solid, only beaten by an impossible-to-stop shot from Ovechkin who was all alone and did well to get all of a bouncing puck. Otherwise Fleury was unbeatable and moves to 14-2 in his last 17 starts. All he does is win, win, win no matter what.
- James Neal only played 14:52, and while he was credited with 3 shots on goal and 2 hits, it was a quiet game for Neal. Having Evgeni Malkin for a center works a lot better than Dustin Jeffrey, and with The Big Guy setting his sights on a return Friday, #18 surely can't wait.
A ten game win streak in the books, and the Pens tidy up a short three game season sweep of the Caps to stay out in first place in the East. Doesn't get much better than that in March, but in the big picture, it doesn't really mean all that much either. It's encouraging to see the Pens win and succeed playing defense, killing penalties and get some timely goal scoring the other way. Once the firepower of Malkin and Letang return, one hopes they keep to the same gameplan and not revert back to the free-wheeling ways that lead to an early playoff exit last spring.