- Michal Neuvirth after giving up Pascal Dupuis' decisive shootout goal. (Photo: Jay Westcott)
If you were a neutral hockey fan, or a traditional hockey fan, there's a very good chance that the ending of Thursday night's wonderful game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals left a bad taste in your mouth. The fact that a game as fast-paced and breathtaking as that had to be settled by an energy-sapping, seven-round shootout seemed unjust, a discordant coda on the end of a wonderful symphony of hockey. Far better, some would argue, to have the game just end after five minutes of overtime with the score tied 2-2 and each team taking a point from the proceedings. You've heard of games no one should have lost? Well, this was a game no one should have won.
This was not the way the NHL thought when they instituted the shootout rule prior to the 2005-06 season, believing ties to be a turn-off to the casual fan. It wasn't what the Washington Capitals were thinking Thursday night, either. This was, after all, Pittsburgh they were playing, and as Karl Alzner pointed out, "We don't want a tie against those guys."
So in the end, Pascal Dupuis' seventh-round shootout goal was the difference between one and two points for the two teams, but in reality, there was very little on display Wednesday night to separate the two teams, both of whom figure to compete with each other again for top honors in the Eastern Conference this season.
There's no stat that one can point at to easily back up that statement. Washington outshot Pittsburgh 25-12 through the first two periods, but most of the Caps' shots were dealt with quite comfortably by Marc-Andre Fleury. By contrast, the Penguins battled back in the third period, outshooting Washington 10-5 and giving Michal Neuvirth all sorts of trouble. Washington outhit Pittsburgh 35-33, while the visitors blocked two more shots than the hometown team (23-21). It was that sort of game, with the Capitals having the lion's share of possession and power play chances early, Pittsburgh looking much more dangerous late, and when the 65 minutes was done, there was still no winner.
No one disgraced themselves on either side, though a select few could hold their heads higher than others. For Washington it was Mike Green, who played 34 minutes, blocked five shots, dished out eight hits, and scored his first goal since November 14 in the second period to tie the game, 1-1. "You saw his celebration," Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau said of the visible relief on Green's face after he scored. "He looked like the weight of the world had just come off him." It was, Boudreau continued, Green's "best game in a long time." Green's play deserved a second goal, and he almost got an overtime winner, only to see the glove of Fleury reach (possibly over the goal line) to keep it out. "If only they could see through leather," Boudreau said wistfully.
Green's expanded time was made necessary by an injury to Tom Poti (see below), which forced the Capitals to roll for the final 40 minutes with just five defensemen. "Sometimes it's easier to play when you're always on the ice," Green said. "You just get into the flow of things and you see things and you create things. Sometimes it's better, but it's definitely more tiring when a man goes down."
Then, for Pittsburgh, there was Sidney Crosby. Annoying as he is to all opposing fans, not just to Washington's, Crosby showed all his great attributes Thursday night: his speed, his sense of positioning, his willingness and ability to go to the net, no matter what the situation. It is no coincidence that Crosby made both of Pittsburgh's goals: the first coming on his beautiful deflection of Kris Letang's shot-cum-pass, and the second coming from the stick of Chris Kunitz after Crosby had shoved a shot on net that Michal Neuvirth couldn't hold.
We must pause here to give special consideration to Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble, the pair who made Washington's second goal. Both despise losing with an unnerving ferocity. Knuble showed that quality to the world during the second episode of HBO's reality series covering the run-up to the Winter Classic. Laich is more of a slow burner, and while Knuble was able to shrug off Thursday night as "a good hockey game," Laich was in no mood for moral victories: "I'm sick of talking about intentions and trying to measure ourselves. We've got to win hockey games. Bottom line."
A loss in the standings, yes, but in reality, a tie in all but name. "It's the second-best result we could have asked for," Alzner said. "We had a low-scoring game and we played solid for 60 minutes. It was a grade-A effort from our team. That's what we like to see."
We must wait nine days for these teams to play again? Must we wait that long?
My Three Stars
Mike Green-For reasons covered above.
Sidney Crosby-For reasons also covered above.
Marc-Andre Fleury- Stopped 32 shots in 65 minutes, then faced down Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Knuble, Laich, Mathieu Perreault, and Green in the shootout, with only Employee Number 8 beating him.
Defenseman Tom Poti left the ice in the first period after taking an apparent high stick to the face. He is day-to-day, according to Boudreau.