WASHINGTON – In a rivalry dominated by Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, it was left to a player who was 0-for-forever in shootouts to decide the latest tussle between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Mike Knuble was plucked off the bench by coach Bruce Boudreau to give it a try for the Capitals in the fourth round of the shootout, even though he had taken only four attempts – and missed them all – since the tiebreaker was introduced in 2005.
He looked like an old pro at the task, scoring with a strong move against Marc-Andre Fleury to give Washington a 4-3 victory Wednesday night.
“I couldn’t believe Bruce was doing it to me,” Knuble said. “I didn’t play in overtime at all, so I thought my night was over. So he taps you and you’re just like ‘Ho!’ … I told him when I got off the ice, ‘I don’t like you when you do that. Don’t do that stuff to me.”‘
So why he chosen, given his track record?
“I didn’t know what he was before,” Boudreau said. “I just thought he was going to score.”
So it was a gut instinct?
“And it’s a big gut,” Boudreau said, nodding and laughing.
The Capitals have won all three meetings against their nemesis this season by dominating the end game, outscoring Pittsburgh 8-1 in the third period and overtime. They pulled this one off with only one point from Alex Ovechkin – an assist on Knuble’s second-period goal – as they won for the eighth time in 11 games and increased their already mammoth lead atop the Eastern Conference standings.
The Capitals also tied the franchise points record of 108 set last season. Jose Theodore made 39 saves for the Capitals, increasing his club-record streak to 19 games (17-0-2) without a loss in regulation, the longest such streak by an NHL goalie in 10 years.
“It was mentally a very important win for us,” Ovechkin said. “We know they have a very good team. They miss (Sergei) Gonchar and (Evgeni) Malkin, but they’re still the Stanley Cup champions.”
Every game between the Capitals and Penguins is a big one these days. This one was expected to be special because Ovechkin and Crosby entered tied for the NHL goal-scoring lead with 45 apiece, but each was held to one assist. It also was the first time the teams have met since the Vancouver Olympics, when Crosby’s Canadians routed Ovechkin’s Russians on the way to the gold medal.
The teams’ last meeting was an instant classic, with Ovechkin scoring a hat trick as Washington rallied from a three-goal deficit to win in overtime on Super Sunday. And the Capitals still haven’t lived down last year’s playoff series, when Washington fell apart in Game 7 and watched Pittsburgh go on and win the Stanley Cup.
So does it mean anything that the Capitals are 3-0 this season, with a chance to make a clean sweep when they play again in Pittsburgh in two weeks.
“Would I like to be 4-0? Yes, I think that would be better for our team,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “But I also like the way we played and I like the way we’ve gone to overtime now twice. That’s the way we need to play.”
Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr scored about 2 minutes apart early in the third period to give Washington the lead before Jordan Staal’s goal with 3:06 remaining in regulation sent the game into overtime.
Kris Letang and Crosby scored for Pittsburgh in the first two rounds of the shootout, putting the Penguins ahead 2-0. Ovechkin and Semin then scored for Washington while Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz had their attempts stopped by Theodore. Then Knuble ended the game.
Maxime Talbot and Guerin scored in the second period for the Penguins, who have lost four of five and missed a chance to move back ahead of the New Jersey Devils in the Atlantic Division.
The Penguins led 2-1 after the second period, but Semin tied the game with one of the best individual short-handed efforts of the year. He picked off a pass from Crosby deep in the Capitals’ end, skated the length of the ice weaving around and through the Penguins’ power-play unit, then unleashed a wrister from the slot that found the upper right-hand corner of the net.
Fehr then gave the Capitals the lead by deflecting Mike Green’s shot from the right circle, but Staal tied it with a shot from the right circle high to the glove side of Theodore.
The game was a welcome relief for Washington after two days of distractions stemming from the steroids-related arrest of a chiropractor who has treated several of the team’s players. Matt Bradley, Shaone Morrisonn and Fehr were interviewed by investigators Tuesday and indicated they were unaware of the chiropractor’s alleged drug connections. Authorities say they have no proof that steroids were supplied to any Capitals player.
“The sooner we can get that behind us, the sooner we can play hockey,” Fehr said before the game.
Notes: Gonchar was sidelined due to an illness, and Malkin sat out for the fourth time in five games with a bruised right foot. Bylsma says he doesn’t have a target date for Malkin’s return, but “it’s not a long-term situation at this point.” … The Penguins were whistled for only one penalty. … Capitals C Brooks Laich missed a game for the first time since February 2007 after being struck near the eye by a puck during practice Tuesday, ending his consecutive games streak at 257.