SNAPPED; Penguins top Capitals 5-3, But Still Retain Top Spot in Metro

TLDR: Despite two goals by Jakub Vrana, and one by John Carlson, it just wasn’t enough. Pittsburgh wins 5-3, snapping a 7-game win streak. The Capitals still maintain a first place spot in the division. 

In the first of a four-game road trip, your Washington Capitals were unable to complete a comeback against the Pittsburgh Penguins in enemy territory. Arguably the greatest rivalry in modern day hockey, when the Caps and Pens play, you know bragging rights are on the line. Every game feels like it’s the first, but things always pick right back up where they left off. Back in December, the Penguins beat the Capitals 2-1 at Capital One Arena. Although tonight’s game was the last meeting between the two of the regular season, a post-season meeting is all but guaranteed. With these two teams having met in the post season for three consecutive seasons, it just doesn’t feel like Spring unless there is a Caps-Pens series. Over the last three seasons, the winner of the fourth and final match-up has gone on to win the Stanley Cup, so to say this game had major implications would be a gross understatement. Red herring statistic, or is there really some juju behind it?

The Penguins took the ice tonight missing five key pieces, including three defensemen (Ruhwedel, Letang, Maatta) and two forwards (Aston-Reese, Rust). A healthy and decently-rested Capitals team were riding a 7-game win streak, boasting a 90.5% penalty kill and a power play running at 23.8% effectiveness. The first period started off as fiery and physical as expected.

PPG Paints Arena is difficult to play in for the opposition, but that didn’t seem to faze the Caps. Washington would receive the first power play of the night, as Jake Guentzel would be called for holding against Capitals captain, Alex Ovechkin. Unfortunately, Lars Eller would be called for kneeing, so play went to four-on-four for a moment, and the Pens would then get their first power play. A much-needed penalty kill by the Capitals kept Pittsburgh off the board, even with the extra man. Caps goaltender Braden Holtby somehow kept the puck from sneaking behind him despite a flurry of players right in front of him. With just over 30 seconds remaining in the first period, elite sniper Jakub Vrana snuck the puck past Matt Murray, giving the Capitals a 1-0 lead heading into the intermission. The goal would mark Vrana’s career-high of 20 goals.

Early on in the second, the Penguins received their second power play, as Ovechkin went off to the box for high sticking. Another successful kill by the Caps would not only keep the score 1-0, but would also give the good guys an odd-man rush between Lars Eller and former Penguin Carl Hagelin. They would not score, but it is very evident that the Capitals are getting the better of the scoring opportunities. With under 10 minutes remaining in the second, a weird deflection off of the back of Pens goaltender Matt Murray would give the Capitals a 2-0 lead. Jakub Vrana would ultimately be credited with the goal, marking his second of the night.

Shortly thereafter, Pittsburgh would score their first goal of the game. A defensive breakdown in front of Holtby would give Jake Guentzel his 35th of the season. 47 seconds later, a bad turnover in the Pens defensive zone led to Sidney Crosby tying the game at two each. Nicklas Backstrom would go off to the box for tripping, giving the Pens another power play. The already-energized PPG Paints Arena would become even more energized as Crosby would strike again, giving the Pens a 3-2 lead. The Capitals seriously needed to step it up or else this game could tilt dangerously in the Pens’ favor. After 40 minutes, the Caps would end up down 3-2 after allowing three unanswered goals by Pittsburgh.

As previously mentioned, Pittsburgh is a difficult city to play in. But the Caps have been there and done that, most recently evidenced by a second round exorcism of demons during their 2017-18 Championship run. While few actually know what is said in the Capitals’ locker room during intermissions, one can only assume the second intermission break was a less-than-pleasant one. The Capitals came out fighting, and intended on ending the night the same way. However, it was not enough for the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. As expected, Tom Wilson and Erik Gudbranson would eventually cross paths, this time in front of the net. Both would receive matching penalties, so play would end up as 4v4 for two minutes. Neither the Caps nor the Pens would score. Just as the Capitals started to regain steam, they would be called for too-many-men, and the Pens would end right back up on the power play. It is absolutely unbelievable the sheer number of minor penalties the Capitals have been taking recently. For a while, it seemed as though they had that under control, playing more disciplined hockey. But it seems as though this win streak has given the Capitals a false sense of security, and now they are paying for it. Holtby came out a little too far and Phil Kessel would score on the power play, giving the Penguins a 4-2 lead. Pittsburgh would then, albeit late, be called for the same penalty, and the Capitals would get their power play. John Carlson scored his 11th goal of the season, lifting the Caps within one goal, but still trailing 4-3. Ovechkin would be given the primary assist, marking his 1200th point of his career.

With two minutes left, Caps head coach Todd Reirden would elect to pull Braden Holtby in exchange for the extra man. As usual, the plan would backfire, and Pittsburgh would score an empty net goal, sealing the deal for a 5-3 victory over the Capitals. The Caps’ seven-game win streak would be ultimately be snapped, but by a two-point margin, they still hold on to the top spot in the division. The Capitals, Islanders, and Penguins make up the first, second, and third place spots by only two point apiece. The top 5 spots, including the two wildcard spots, are separated by just 8 points total.

FiCP’s Three Takeaways of the Game:

  1. Enough with the turnovers.
  2. Enough with the penalties.
  3. Much of the Caps’ team are having a career-best season.

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