The Capitals are returning home today after one of the most important road trips of the season. And until Monday night it was fairly mediocre.
With a record of 2-2 heading into last night’s game with Pittsburgh, and only one game that showed the offensive prowess of a year ago, a final loss to the Penguins could have been devastating. But instead, the Caps showed they could beat one of their bitter rivals with a new brand of defense.
Granted neither team looked the same. Pittsburgh is playing without stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which has forced the team to become more defensive minded. The Capitals went their entire road trip without Mike Green, who they rely on to spark the offense from the blue line.
Ironically, there was no lack of offensive chances, they were just denied for the most part by stellar goaltending and stingy defense. Marc-Andre Fleury stonewalled Alex Ovechkin on a first-period breakaway. Michal Neuvirth denied Penguins forward Jordan Staal on a short-handed chance. And John Carlson showed flashes of his young brilliance with a beautiful lift check on Max Talbot right before he fired the puck.
The lack of goal scoring in no way diminished the intensity. The animosity was still palpable and came to a head during a second-period bout between Matt Bradley and AHL call-up Ryan Craig. The fight came after Bradley planted super-pest Matt Cooke into the boards earlier in the period, much to the delight of the rest of the league. And Ovechkin continued his return to physicality, hitting as many black and gold jerseys as he could.
But what’s most interesting is how this could shape a playoff showdown. Key players could be healthy by then (hopefully including Nicklas Backstrom, who appears to have suffered a fractured thumb). But instead of the high-scoring battles we’ve seen in the past, a series this year could be a grinder. And it appears the Caps are prepared -- finally -- to win a best-of-seven that way.
In any case, thanks to last night’s game at least we know it will be exciting.