Capitals Show Improvement in Loss to Penguins

Effort was there, but the goals were not

By Jim Iovino
|  Friday, Dec 2, 2011  |  Updated 10:14 AM EDT
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Caps Show Improvement in Loss to Pens

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WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01: John Erskine #4 of the Washington Capitals and Arron Asham #45 of the Pittsburgh Penguins fight during the first period at Verizon Center on December 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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Do you want the good news or the bad news?

The good news? You got it.

In the first two games of the Dale Hunter regime, the Capitals have allowed just two goals per contest, showing that the team has made significant strides in the defensive zone.

The bad news?

In the first two games of the Dale Hunter regime, the Capitals have scored just one goal per contest, showing that the team has significant work ahead in order to transition from defensive zone pressure to offensive zone scoring chances.

Thursday night's 2-1 loss to the rival Penguins showed the good and the bad -- and while patience is still being preached there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

First thing's first -- the Capitals have had to deal with a new coach and a new system against perhaps two of the best-disciplined, system-oriented teams in the league. First was the Ken Hitchcock-led Blues. Next was the system-strong Penguins, who don't make many mistakes and have a vacuum-tight penalty-killing unit.

"We've played two games now against two teams that don't make mistakes," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "St. Louis is playing really well. They don't turn the puck over. They chip and chip and chip and keep coming at you. Pittsburgh's the same, but they put a little more skill on."

With all of that being said, the Capitals may not be that far off. A few more practices, and a game Saturday against the Ottawa Senators, and things may start to click.

For now, the "p" word -- patience -- will have to suffice.

"I thought we did a pretty good job defensively, but there were still some breakdowns and still some confusion. That's going to take a little time to sort out," Wideman said.

Against Pittsburgh the Capitals were outscored and outshot, but they outhit the Pens 43-28. So the effort was there. And were it not for a Nicklas Backstrom shot that clanged off the crossbar in the second period, the outcome may have been different.

With the game tied at 1 about seven minutes into the second, Alex Ovechkin sent a beauty of a cross-ice pass to Backstrom, who was wide open in the left circle. Backstrom one-timed a shot that got past a diving Marc-Andre Fleury but smacked off the iron and out of play.

"When you have luck, the puck just goes in," Ovechkin said. "And if you have 20 more chances, he probably puts it in 19."

That could have made it 2-1 Caps. Instead, Pittsburgh got the go-ahead goal early in the third.

Chris Kunitz got the goal with a great individual effort. He chased down a loose puck and fought off Marcus Johansson to gain possession, then he took advantage of a John Erskine stumble to enter the Caps' zone. A few strides later he fired a wrister on Tomas Vokoun that squeezed through his side and blocker for the goal.

"It squeaked underneath my arm," Vokoun said. "It's tough to do anything about that. It's unfortunate that decided the game."

The Pens got on the board first when Arron Asham picked up a loose puck behind the net, skated out to the left of Vokoun and passed to Craig Adams, who was left alone by Jeff Schultz at the far post for the goal. The shot was the seventh of the period, compared to Washington's zero.

Clearly needing a change in tone, the Caps got it off the next faceoff when John Erskine dropped the gloves with Asham. The fight was a draw (as well as some redemption for Asham knocking out Jay Beagle earlier this year), but it definitely energized the Caps' bench and crowd.

"It's a lot of pride in the room there," Hunter said. "He was sticking up for his teammate and he did a good job."

A few minutes later, the Ovechkin line finally found life. Ovi had several scoring chances on the play, and the line was able to register the team's first three shots on goal, but they couldn't push the puck past Fleury.

At the end of the period the Caps were being outscored and outshot, but they outhit the Pens 19-6.

The Caps finally got on the board early in the second period thanks to some intense forechecking by Joel Ward and Jason Chimera. The pair bottled the Pens deep in their end. Eventually Chimera found space with the biscuit in the left corner. Ward charged hard at the net and took two Pens with him. Chimera used the extra space to skate in front of Fleury and backhand a shot past the netminder.

After the Pens got the early third-period goal, they clamped down defensively, limiting the Caps to just two shots in the entire period.

Hunter said that while the shots weren't there, the scoring chances were, and that is the kind of effort he's looking for.

Ovechkin feels the same way.

"We lost it," he said, "but if our team is going to play like that we're going to be successful."

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