WASHINGTON -- A veteran scout observing Sunday afternoon’s rivalry game between the Penguins and Capitals sounded almost relieved in his evaluation of the play after two periods. Like, he’d been waiting too long for a game like this.
“This is the first good hockey game I’ve seen this year,” he said.
The lopsided score, a 6-3 Penguins win over the Capitals, didn’t necessarily suggest quality. There were a couple of goals Washington goalie Braden Holtby probably wanted back. And a fluke goal by Capitals defenseman John Carlson, who fired the puck around the glass and became the recipient of a bizarre bounce into an empty net.
But in between, there was solid action between two teams at completely different points in their development this season. The Capitals are still searching a bit right now for their consistency and identity under new coach Adam Oates. The Penguins are currently re-establishing themselves as the Stanley Cup contender we expected before the season started.
In the loss, Washington showed flashes of their offensive potential. Tomas Vokoun said the power play kept him moving, which tapped into his energy. The Capitals got a power-play goal late with Mike Ribeiro's second tally of the season.
“They were two minutes in the offensive zone,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of the Capitals' power play. “They have one-timers with [Mike] Green and [Alex] Ovechkin. Troy Brouwer in the middle. Two great playmakers distribute the puck, it feels pretty darn dangerous out there.”
That’s in part why Bylsma was pleased with Sunday’s game. He liked the effort he saw on the penalty kill by defensemen Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, who each saw more than five minutes of short-handed ice time.
And when the bad bounce tied the game, Bylsma saw a focus on the bench that left him confident his team would shake it off. After Carlson scored, the Penguins got two goals in 37 seconds to recapture a lead they wouldn’t surrender.
The win over the Capitals was Pittsburgh’s third consecutive since an ugly loss to the Islanders on Jan. 29. A loss that may have served as a bit of a wake-up call for the Penguins.
“For sure,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “The big thing we have to realize that it’s a process. We have to build it. Frustration was creeping in, we expect a certain level that maybe wasn’t there. That’s something we have to create. Hopefully with each game we get better.”
They followed that loss with a shutout win in Madison Square Garden, a 5-1 victory against the Devils in Pittsburgh and Sunday’s matinee doubling up of the rival Capitals.
It’s building for Pittsburgh, but far from complete. Bylsma isn’t ready to label this team as great. Not in February.
This group knows that regular-season labels are worthless anyway. In Washington, the Capitals are a team that is still learning under its first-year coach. Vokoun estimated that it took a good 20 games for them to get comfortable playing for Dale Hunter last season.
With Pittsburgh, it’s different. They know what they need to do, they just need to consistently work their way in that direction as the playoffs slowly creep closer.
“There’s nothing for winning the most games in the regular season,” Bylsma said. “Whether we win three games or whatever happens, we have to keep building. We’re building for success in the playoffs, not for someone to tell us that we’re good. That’s a process.”