If the Capitals are going to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for a seventh consecutive year, a demanding schedule down the stretch demands they earn that berth the hard way.
With back-to-back games against the Pittsburgh Penguins early this week, that’s easier said than done. The first leg went to the visitors at Verizon Center on Monday night. Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz each scored their 30th goals of the season before the game was even four minutes old – Kunitz would later add another - and the Penguins left town with a hard-fought 3-2 victory.
“It’s very tough because guys played a good game, probably one of our better games we’ve played against that team,” coach Adam Oates said. “To come out on the short end of the stick is difficult. We did a lot of good things in the game.”
There are only 16 games remaining for Washington so time is running short. The Caps (30-26-10, 70 points), who are winless in four of their last five, must now travel to Pittsburgh for the return engagement on Tuesday night. It doesn’t get any easier with a three-game trip to California next week against three of the NHL’s top eight teams (Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose).
But that can wait. For now, Washington needs to quickly figure a way to solve the Penguins, who have beaten them three times this season and seven in a row overall. Tuesday’s game is the season finale between the two clubs in this Metropolitan Division series. Pittsburgh (43-17-4, 90 points) regained the lead in the Eastern Conference from Boston (42-17-5, 89 points).
“Every time when we don’t win the game it’s put back in the standings,” Caps forward Alex Ovechkin said. “We now in desperate position and we going to fight through it.”
Kunitz scored just 46 seconds into the game, roofing a shot over goalie Jaroslav Halak (17 saves, 20 shots) who was starting his second game in a row. Eric Fehr answered for Washington when he deflected home a pass from forward Jason Chimera. That is five assists in the last six games for Chimera, who also had a beauty to tie the game on Saturday as Washington rallied for a 3-2 victory over Phoenix.
But Crosby answered that game-tying goal just 49 seconds later on a power play with a blast from the point to make it 2-1. The quick response by an opponent has been a season-long trend.
“There’s a lot of things we haven’t figured out, teams responding after we score and our two-goal lead problem that we have,” Fehr said. “We’re trying to work these things out as we go, but at the end of the day we’ve just got to be a desperate hockey team. We understand we’re on the outside looking in right now and these games are important.”
Pittsburgh started backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff (31 saves, 33 shots) in place of Marc-Andre Fleury, who is expected to get the nod on Tuesday night. Former Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun is out indefinitely with a blood clot and has missed the entire season so far, but Zatkoff has been solid in his place as a reserve with a 9-3-1- record, a 2.75 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage in 13 games entering play Monday.
But Zatkoff couldn’t stop a deflected Nicklas Backstrom shot at 11:03 of the second period. Brooks Laich was camped alone in front on the power play and the Backstrom pass clicked off a body in front to tie the game 2-2.
The Penguins again had an answer, however. Kunitz slammed home a rebound after a shot in transition by teammate Lee Stempniak. That was set up by a nifty drop pass from Crosby and Pittsburgh went up 3-2 . That was goal No. 31 for Kunitz on just his team’s 10th shot of the game. Crosby had a hand in all three of those goals.
Washington had a late power play chance with 2:17 left to go thanks to a too-many-men on the ice penalty taken by the Penguins. The Caps eventually pulled Halak for the extra attacker and had a 6-on-4 advantage and finished the game 6-on-5. But they couldn’t push home the tying goal as Pittsburgh held on for the victory.
“It was a big game for us. I thought we played well,” Washington defenseman John Carlson said. “But we didn’t come out on top, which is the most important thing right now.”