The Penguins are rolling with the same lines and setup and personnel as yesterday, minus the normal goalie rotation that sees Matt Murray in the crease.
As always with Pens and Capitals, it’s a tight game, emotions are running high and just about every inch of ice is contested tooth and nail. In the beginning Pittsburgh didn’t look like they had a lot going on, and as totally usual in afternoon games they fell behind 1-0. Nice play by Jakub Vrana to show off his speed and get a step around Marcus Pettersson for a breakaway. Then it goes from bad to worse when the puck goes in off of Pettersson and he cranks his back against the post for his troubles. 1-0 Washington.
The Pens really seem to settle into the game after this point though and start playing better and really deny Washington shots on net, for the next 30ish minutes, at least. The period ends with two Pittsburgh power plays, they score on neither of them. Shots are 9-6 Pittsburgh after one.
Pittsburgh keeps plugging away and keeps the Caps to the fringe as well, only allowing five shots on goal in the second period, while taking 10. The most consequential came by scoring two goals in a span of just 26 seconds. Patric Hornqvist got the Pens’ opening goal, finding the Kris Letang point shot that got blocked down. Hornqvist was there to hack it in before Braden Holtby could snag it himself. 1-1.
Fun fact: Patric Hornqvist has recorded points in five of his last six games (3G-4A). pic.twitter.com/wOsR7xSQIM— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 23, 2020
Then on the next shift, the Pens strike again. T.J. Oshie returns the own goal favor when he knocks in Sidney Crosby’s shot after a really nice leaping effort by Crosby to get a shot away. Nice setup by Jason Zucker too for Crosby here and just like that the Pens are up 2-1.
Honestly, how does Sidney Crosby do it? pic.twitter.com/RJqp9szfVm— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 23, 2020
Pittsburgh gets a chance to break the game open with a power play when Alex Ovechkin slashes Hornqvist’s stick and had the Caps back on their heels. Despite some good zone time and looks though, the Caps’ PK holds.
Letang and Evgeny Kuznetsov get cross with each other behind the play and each go to the penalty box as a result. On the ensuing 4v4, Pettersson gets in big trouble, skating right into the Caps and turning the puck over. As a result, Tom Wilson is alone on a breakaway and has plenty of time to deke to the backhand and tuck it in to tie the game.
Tom Wilson 2-2 pic.twitter.com/uaKgrZqOPu— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) February 23, 2020
Washington strikes again early in the period to push back to the lead. A net-front scramble ensues and Carl Hagelin is able to find the puck and send it into the net. 3-2 WSH.
But the Pens don’t go quietly, Evgeni Malkin creates a career highlight, even for his illustrious resume, when he burns presumptive Norris trophy front runner John Carlson with a tremendous deke, then stickhandles and finishes it past Holtby to tie the game at 3.
Evgeni Malkin 3-3 pic.twitter.com/zTrP3u8lYL— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) February 23, 2020
Unfortunately though, for as good as that was, it would be as close as the Pens got to winning this game. Oshie scores to push the Caps ahead on a very similar looking goal to Hagelin’s where the Pens’ defensive structure gets out of sorts, a puck is loose but can’t be collected until it’s too late. 4-3 Caps.
The action continued, but no more goals followed until Hagelin put the proverbial nail in the coffin with an empty net goal to make the final score 5-3.
Metro race is on. The Caps move back into first place as a result of today’s contest, two points ahead of Pittsburgh. The Pens, however, do hold one game in hand, so the race could be a virtual dead heat at this point with two more PIT/WSH games still to go (both in Pittsburgh). Perhaps by then some reinforcements for Pittsburgh like John Marino and Brian Dumoulin could be back. Overall, the Pens and Caps split the 2019-20 regular season games, and may well split the ones in Pittsburgh too. Two evenly matched teams that are pretty strong. The Metro race is likely to go right down to the wire.
Hangin’ tough. Despite getting the short end of the result, felt this was a pretty strong game for the Pens. It was a rough third period, but before that they were in command for the most part of this contest. Personnel remains a problem, with their injuries (Marino, Dumoulin, Dominik Kahun, Nick Bjugstad, Zach Aston-Reese, to say nothing of Jake Guentzel) the Pens just aren’t good enough to what they could and should be. Frustrating, but they stood right in this game and had a chance to win late, on the road.
Defense. Pettersson might have had one of his worst games of the season. Just one of those games where nothing was going right and all of his decisions seemed to be coming back to bite him. His partner in Justin Schultz just offers no resistance or ability to help cover up mistakes. That might be a pair the Pens want to consider tweaking. By game’s end, Zach Trotman was playing with Letang and Chad Ruhwedel was pulling Jack Johnson duty. That’s scary stuff. If Pettersson-Schultz can’t be reliable the Pens are basically left with one trustworthy defenseman in Letang and then a whole bunch of yikes. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Caps are very much a mirror image of the Pens. Star-studded, very deep top nine forward group followed by one top defender and then a lot of guys relying on hope at this point.
Tough weekend for the Pens, who fell yesterday to Buffalo, and blew a third period lead today in DC. There were definitely more positives to take out of today’s effort, even if it wasn’t a win. The road trip continues this week out to California, against not-very-good teams (who will be post-trade deadline and maybe even weaker still!) so Pittsburgh will have a prime chance to get back on track. After today, it felt like they’re close.