It was a rowdy night at the Verizon Center in the nation’s capital on Saturday night as the Pittsburgh Penguins edged the Washington Capitals in front of a sellout crowd of 18,277, many of them Pittsburgh Penguins fans. From where I sat in Section 116 behind the net, I would estimate that 60% of the fans around me were Penguins fans (including a busload of great people from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton that came down to see the game).
For the Caps fans, the focus of attention was Pens’ Captain Sidney Crosby whom they booed whenever he carried the puck. The Pens fans in attendance returned the favor in kind by booing Caps’ star forward Alexander Ovechkin whenever he had the puck. The jeering underscored the rivalry that exists (at least in the fans’ minds) between two of the league’s leading stars. Alexander Ovechkin was the #1 draft pick overall in the NHL 2004 Entry Draft, while Sidney Crosby was the #1 draft pick overall in 2005. However, because of the lockout, both players officially hit the ice as rookies in the 2005-06 season. Ovechkin, who scored 106 points that year, was crowned rookie of the year and edged out Crosby (who finished with 102 points) in one of the few honors that has not been bestowed upon him in his short career. Last season, however, Crosby won the league MVP and the scoring title with 120 points in 79 games, while Ovechkin put up 92 points in 82 games. Despite the rivalry, both players are phenoms in their own right having reached 200 career points faster than any other current active players. But when it comes to team play, Pittsburgh clearly has the bragging rights as they have now defeated the Washington Capitals in 8 of the 9 matchups that the teams have had in the Crosby/Ovechkin era. The Penguins also kept Ovechkin from getting a goal or an assist last night, the only game this season that he has been kept off the scoresheet. This is the third straight matchup in which the Penguins have kept Ovechkin off the scoresheet. Perhaps in frustration, Ovechkin put a hard check on Crosby in the third period, that nearly resulted in an on-ice brawl amongst their teammates. “That was a good hit,” Crosby said. “He’s a strong guy. He plays a complete game. I don’t expect him to take it easy against anybody – especially me.” Crosby did his job, however, picking up an assist on the game-winning power play goal by Ryan Whitney.
Despite all of the attention paid to Ovechkin and Crosby, the real star of the night was Marc-Andre Fleury, a player who was overdue and in need of a strong performance in net. He delivered. Fleury only let in one goal on 31 shots in a game where the Penguins were outshot 31-22. After a bench-warming session in the game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, Fleury came out and appeared more focused, calm, and played a style of game that was more reminiscent of the Fleury of last year. Despite the fact that the Caps were on a 3-game skid, they came out flying in the first period and doubled up on shots against the Penguins 12-6, and put a lot of pressure on Fleury. He gave up the lone Caps goal to Brian Pothier, an even strength tally through traffic at 13:45 from Nylander and Backstrom. After that goal, he shut down the Caps who went 0-3 on the man advantage. Fleury went on to stop 30 shots, was named the #1 star of the game, and advanced his career record to 6-0 against the Capitals. “The guys helped me out,” Fleury said. “They didn’t let (Ovechkin) get in front of me.” Although Fleury still needs to improve his game, his positioning for this game was much improved and hopefully he can use this good win as a confidence builder.
In my game preview, I had pre-declared that it would be the “night of the Gronk”. Little did I know that Jordan Staal would not only score his first goal of the season, but would also tangle in his first NHL fight. Staal’s goal, which tied the game 1-1, came at 3:58 of the second period. The wrister, assisted by Mark Recchi and Brooks Orpik, found its way past Caps goalie Brent Johnson. It was a good reward for Staal, who has been playing very well on the second line, centered by Evgeni Malkin. Staal’s fight started near center ice at 6:21 of the third period against Capitals player Matt Pettinger. I have to admit that I was surprised to see the Gronk drop the gloves, and I didn’t see what started it, but I could see enough to know that Jordan was pretty mad. After some tussling and missed swings, Pettinger took Staal down to the ice and the refs stepped in and sent the two off for 5-minutes. The Staal-Pettinger fight came about 4 minutes after a fight between heavyweights Georges Laraque and Donald Brashear. Laraque, playing his first game after missing 3 due to a groin injury, was really taking it to Donald Brashear until Brashear was finally able to respond with a hard shot to Laraque’s head that dropped him to the ice.
The game winning goal came on the power play at 17:59 of the second period on a slapsot by Ryan Whitney, his 100th career point. Whitney converted on a nice cross-ice pass from Sidney Crosby. Ryan Malone picked up an assist on the goal, as well.
The Penguins held off the Caps in the third period, despite being outshot 11-5 to put up their first back-to-back wins of the season. “I don’t think we can afford to look too far ahead. We’ve made some pretty good steps here the past couple of games,” Crosby said. “We have to build off it.” Certainly, tonight’s game was played well and should help build the team confidence as one of their best played games of the season. Not perfect, but definitely improved.
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The Pittsburgh Penguins return to the Mellon Arena to host the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, October 23rd. We will be here with a comprehensive game preview on Monday, and live in-game chat on Tuesday night.