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Penguins/Capitals Recap: Pens can’t climb out of early hole, fall to Caps

After falling behind 4-0, the Pens battle back but run out of time and lose 4-3 to Washington

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Pregame

A couple of changes for the Penguins, Bryan Rust is back from IR, Vinnie Hinostroza is off the NHL roster altogether and P.O Joseph gets a jersey over John Ludvig.

The Capitals are going with this group.

First period

Nightmare start in the early going, Tom Wilson rips a shot from the top of the right circle on the rush and Tristan Jarry is down and off his angle a little, while getting caught leaning the wrong way. Puck is in the net 55 seconds in.

Jake Guentzel misses the net high and wide, giving Washington a clean release up the ice. Ryan Graves gets beaten to the outside by the speed of Beck Malenstyn. Then some bad luck strikes when Graves accidentally deflects the centering attempt up and over Jarry’s shoulder and it flutters into the net. 2-0.

The sleepy Penguins get caught again, Joseph is weak to a loose puck and Noel Acciari and Jeff Carter have some miscommunication and get caught watching Martin Fehervary walk around the zone. Chad Ruhwedel leaves some traffic in front and Jarry doesn’t pick up the incoming shot. 3-0 game, Jarry’s night is over and Mike Sullivan uses his timeout to scream at his players.

Pittsburgh settles down a little and Chad Ruhwedel even scores the rare goal from distance, but the Caps quickly challenge for offsides on the play. Turns out Crosby was a hair off, so the goal is disallowed and the score remains 3-0.

Valtteri Puustinen takes the first penalty of the game with an offensive zone slashing call and the Caps come through. Alex Ovechkin hides out by the right point and flings in a shot past Alex Nedeljkovic. 4-0 and just about everything that could go wrong has for the Pens to open a game.

Pittsburgh finally scores a goal that counts with four seconds left. Erik Karlsson sets up Rickard Rakell who shoots off the bar and in from his back foot. 4-1.

Ugly period, Puustinen’s lip was split in the early going from an errant follow through and that was only about the 10th worst thing to happen to the Pens in the first.

Second period

Pittsburgh draws their first power play of the game. The puck movement is good, the Pens snap it around, break down the Caps’ structure and Sidney Crosby goes to the net. He scores on the second attempt while not even standing up. 4-2 game with 10:49 to play in the second.

The Pens’ momentum is delayed by Jeff Carter taking an offensive zone penalty for a Capital player dropping his stick, Pittsburgh kills it off this time.

Pittsburgh keeps pushing and pulls within one goal. Crosby smashes Rasmus Sandin on the forecheck behind the net and Rakell is there in support to poke the puck back to the captain. Crosby centers it for Jake Guentzel and his second effort lifts the puck over Kuemper and in. 4-3 game with 1:06 to play.

Some Crosby/Guentzel magic produces a pair of goals in the second for the Pens to make it a game again, but they still trail by one heading into the last frame.

Third period

The Pens get a second power play when Fehervary takes down Rakell but they can’t score on it.

More pressure by the Pittsburgh second line forces new Capital Ethan Bear to the box after holding Evgeni Malkin. It’s the least productive of the three on the night and doesn’t get a lot going.

With just over two minutes the Pens pull Nedeljkovic. They get some zone time but can’t find the tying goal and time runs out.

Some thoughts

  • For many goalies, giving up one early is a sign of bad things to come. So it was for Jarry tonight. After getting beat from distance he was never able to settle in and was fighting off pucks the rest of the time he was in there. The second goal against was pure bad luck, the whole team looked poor on the third, but removing the goalie was a must at that point. Just wasn’t his night.
  • The first period had to leave Graves feeling sick too. On the first goal he kept Wilson on the outside and was a tight fraction in time and distance from using his stick to disrupt the shot, but he couldn’t and the goalie didn’t make the save. As if that wasn’t bad enough for a defensive defender, Graves’ gap and positioning got burnt by Malenstyn and then he compounded the problem by knocking the puck into the cage. In this age of stick and positional-based defending, a guy can’t see that happen twice within about 10 minutes.
  • As a result, late in the first the Pens moved Graves down to the third pair for most of the rest of the game.
  • Washington goalie Darcy Kuemper surrendered five goals in each of his last two appearances, but the Caps did an excellent job of insulating him. They didn’t give up many shots early on (believe the Pens had just 1 SOG in the first 13+ minutes of the game) and the video crew got a fairly unrelated offsides to reverse a goal Kuemper gave up. Washington’s offense did the rest with plenty of goal support. Shame for the Pens to not be able to take advantage of a recently leaky goalie, or not play better to force the issue.
  • In very obvious and comical ways this game was a signal of bounces getting right. The Pens got plenty of puck luck (and friendly posts/crossbars) in recent games against STL and NYI. Water was finding its level, so to say, with the luck turning back against them to even out tonight.
  • The Caps apparently didn’t get the memo on how to defend the Pittsburgh power play. High pressure from the forwards on the PK will disrupt and often knock the Pens off track. Sitting back passively to protect from the circles and down is exactly what the Pens need their opponent to do in order to allow them a better chance of making plays (and eventually outnumbering them down low anyways). Washington gave them that.
  • And yet, the Pens’ power play got bogged down in the third period by getting too cute with high risk passes and low percentage plays. Going 1-for-3 on the night is OK, but when it comes into the night 2-for-25 in recent games and needing another one in the third to tie it, hurts to not find that boost.
  • Karlsson changes so much when he’s looking to shoot the puck. Rust almost scored from the door-step as a direct result of that. The Pens offense in general needs Karlsson active and in the mentality to get pucks to the net. He only had 3 SOG in the game but had a whopping 11 more attempts blocked or missing the net. Usually that might be a negative, but in the big scheme of things they need him firing often.
  • Crosby’s two points on the night had him tie and then surpass Joe Thornton for 12th in all-time NHL scoring (1,540 points).

And like that, the Pens open 2024 with a thud and suffer their first regulation loss since December 16th. The road only gets tougher from here, with a date in Boston coming up on Thursday night.