- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

Yes, the Washington Capitals put forth a better effort than the previous three games. Sure, they made a dramatic third-period comeback.

Still, in the shootout era of the NHL, that can all be for naught - as the Caps found out Sunday afternoon. Sidney Crosby had the lone goal in the shootout, and the Pittsburgh Penguins avoided a season sweep with a 4-3 victory against the Caps at sold-out Verizon Center.

“I thought we had a great third period and played a good game,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It was a great hockey game. To me it is a 3-3 tie because you know coaches just hate shootouts when you lose. … I think you have to take stock and not get too depressed with this. This was an uplifting game for us - by far our best in the last four.”

Pittsburgh completed a perfect five-game road trip and improved to 8-1-1 since Dan Bylsma was named coach. Washington dropped its fourth straight contest - a first in Boudreau’s tenure.

The Caps have boasted one of the top home records in the NHL this season, but this loss completes a forgettable stretch of nine games in 10 at Verizon. They were 3-5-1 in those games and now will play seven of the next eight on the road.

“I think so, especially when things haven’t been going so well at home lately,” Brooks Laich said about looking forward to the forthcoming road trip. “Get back to basics - simplify the game, dump the puck, play ugly, go to the net. [It is] the little things - get back to working. We’re on our way back up.”

After falling behind 3-1 in the first two periods, Washington struck twice in the first 78 seconds of the third to level the score. Ovechkin potted his league-leading 47th with his team on the power play 29 seconds in. Laich was able to knock the puck out from a scrum in front of the net to defenseman Mike Green, and he then moved into position to provide a screen for Ovechkin’s shot.

Laich tied the game 49 seconds later. From behind his own goal line, David Steckel hit Laich with a pass at center ice to start a breakaway, and even though Laich lost control of the puck momentarily, he collected it and deked to his forehand for goal No. 16 of his season.

“He’s a worker,” Boudreau said. “He always wants to play, but when he plays within himself, he’s very good for us.”

Crosby, much to the chagrin of the red-clad fans, put the Penguins on the board first. Recently acquired forward Bill Guerin set up Crosby for an easy one-timer on a two-on-one at 4:29 of the opening period. Were it not for a pair of great saves by Caps goalie Jose Theodore, Crosby might have netted a hat trick in the first 20 minutes.

Alexander Semin tied the score at 1-1 after a fantastic play by Nicklas Backstrom. The sophomore center knocked Kris Letang’s breakout pass out of the air into the left corner and swept a backhanded pass into the slot to Semin, who broke in ahead of a Penguins defender and flipped a backhanded shot past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at 12:46.

The Caps had a four-on-three advantage for 1:39 in the first period and didn’t score, but the Penguins capitalized on theirs in the second. Former Caps defenseman Sergei Gonchar put Pittsburgh in front 7:25 into the middle period with a shot from the top of the offensive zone.

Guerin made it 3-1 a little more than three minutes later. Crosby set him up this time - snapping a backhanded pass from near the Penguins’ bench to Guerin, who deked out Shaone Morrisonn to open space and then wristed a shot past Theodore for his first goal since being traded Wednesday from the N.Y. Islanders for a conditional draft pick.

The Caps moved within a point of New Jersey for the second spot in the conference. Meanwhile, the Penguins are in a three-way tie for fifth with the Panthers and Rangers, with the Canadiens and Hurricanes one point behind.

Had Washington prevailed, it would have been the first season sweep of Pittsburgh in franchise history.

“It was important to create some doubt,” Penguins forward Max Talbot said. “With Washington, we’ve created a little rivalry over the years, and [the Caps] were the best team we played on this trip. Definitely, for us this win is huge mentally.”

Added Ovechkin: “It happens. They played better and made good trades. What can I say? We play well in the third period, but we didn’t play in the first two. We woke up a little bit, so it is a good sign for us.”

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