PITTSBURGH — The playoffs are still a month away. It just feels like they’ve already started for the Washington Capitals.
Dominant at the start and disciplined at the finish, the Capitals pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins around 5-2 on Saturday to give them a little breathing room over their longtime rivals in the crowded race for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Nic Dowd scored early in the first period and again in the third to record the first multi-goal game of his career and Braden Holtby stopped 26 shots as first-place Washington built a 4-0 advantage en route to moving five points ahead of third-place Pittsburgh. Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who held the Penguins in check for long stretches while beating them for the second time in three tries this season.
“I think the win means a lot, but I think the way we played means more,” Oshie said. “Obviously, gave up a couple there late. But from the top all the way down, everyone had the same effort tonight.”
Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin failed to record a shot on goal in a regular season game against Pittsburgh for the first time in his long career but it hardly mattered. Dowd beat Matt Murray just 1:52 into the first period for his first goal in two months and added a shorthanded marker 34 seconds into the second to give the Capitals a commanding lead they never came close to squandering.
“It’s not like I’m looking to go out there and score goals,” Dowd said. “Yeah, it’s great, but at the same time, just be responsible and play good defense. That leads to offense like it did tonight.”
Two days removed from a 6-5 loss to the New York Rangers in which they allowed Mika Zibanejad to score five times, Washington responded by controlling the first 40 minutes then weathering a brief rally late. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin scored in the third period for Pittsburgh to make it 4-2 before Oshie’s 26th of the season with 6:48 to go put it out of reach.
Matt Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins but was undone by some sloppy defense in front of him during Washington’s three-goal, first-period blitz. Pittsburgh has dropped 7 of 9 to fall a little off the pace in the Metropolitan Division.
“It’s an uphill climb when you’re down 3-0 against good hockey teams,” Crosby said. “We competed hard and gave ourselves a chance to get back in it but you know, that’s not a position to put yourself in.”
The Penguins had hoped a two-game winning streak following a six-game slide was a sign they had turned the corner. Maybe not. They had just nine shots through the game’s first 35 minutes despite an extended two-man advantage in the first period and by the time Crosby scored his 16th of the season 5:09 into the third, the Capitals had things well in hand.
“I think we just kind of chased a mistake with another one,” Crosby said. “You get down early in the game and I think our compete was there. We just made some bad reads and ended up, with a team like that that’s pretty opportunistic, they’re not going to make mistakes on 2-on-1s, things like that.”
Dowd’s first goal since Jan. 3 came at the end of a pretty sequence. Panik chased down a loose puck in the corner and slipped it quickly to Garnet Hathaway, who sent a centering pass to Dowd all alone in the slot from point-blank range. Pittsburgh had a chance in the in the latter half of the first period but mustered all of one shot on Holtby during a 1:25 two-man advantage.
The missed opportunity cost the Penguins when Washington scored twice in a 2:23 span near the end of the period. Backstrom finished a textbook end-to-end rush in which all five Capitals touched the puck, Backstrom being the last as he broke in alone on Murray. Panik made it 3-0 when he capped a 3-on-2 break by punching one in from the doorstep. The early onslaught left the Penguins dazed, and there was no immediate response.
Pittsburgh’s best scoring chance came when Jared McCann was held on a breakaway attempt. Holtby stoned the chance and then turned aside the penalty shot McCann was awarded. When Dowd collected his seventh of the season by slamming home a feed from Carl Hagelin on a shorthanded rush, the Capitals were in control.
“We had a little bit of traction in some areas,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. “Now we’ve got to build on that and continue to push our game forward.”
NOTES: Holtby has now stopped 5 of 7 penalty shots in his career. … The Penguins made F Evan Rodrigues - acquired from Buffalo in a trade last week - a healthy scratch. Pittsburgh also scratched Ds Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola and Fs Dominik Simon and Anthony Angello. … Washington scratched D Radko Gudas and Fs Brendan Leipsic. … The teams meet for the final time in the regular season on March 22 in Pittsburgh.
Capitals: Finish up a three-game road trip on Monday in Buffalo.
Penguins: Play their third game in less than 72 hours when they host Carolina on Sunday.
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