WASHINGTON – It was a game of disputed deflections and odd bounces, with the puck behaving more like that oblong ball with the laces more commonly associated with Super Bowl Sunday. The strangest carom of all came on a simple dump-in that hit a stanchion along the glass and went into a net deserted by a befuddled goaltender.
The Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t fazed by that bit of misfortune that tied the game in the second period, just as Washington Capitals couldn’t take advantage of the stroke of luck. The third annual Super Bowl warm-up between the Eastern Conference rivals soon turned into a rout, with Chris Kunitz getting a hat trick in the visitors’ 6-3 victory.
“I really like our team responding to that bad bounce that happened on the wall,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “Now it’s 2-2—and our team responded well with the penalty kill and getting some goals.”
Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Matt Cooke also scored, Sidney Crosby had three assists, and Tomas Vokoun made 21 saves against his former team for the Penguins, who have won three straight and four of five to lead the Atlantic Division.
In a game that reflected both teams’ fortunes so far in the lockout-shortened season, the Penguins had the luxury of spending the postgame talking about who actually should have received credit for their half-dozen goals.
Kunitz thought he scored four instead of three, saying he got his stick on the puck to redirect Martin’s shot from the point in the first period. And Cooke was given a redirect goal on a shot from Deryk Engelland that seemed instead to hit Capitals defenceman Jeff Schultz.
“I didn’t know they took the other one away from me,” Kunitz said. “That’s how it bounces. No one really cares around here. … We’re worried about the two points.”
Then came the bizarre 80-footer from Capitals defenceman John Carlson, an obvious dump-in that Vokoun retreated behind the net to intercept. Vokoun then tripped trying to get back to the crease when he saw the puck take the unexpected change of direction along the glass.
Vokoun said he’s allowed a similar goal only once before—about a dozen years ago in Chicago.
“I remember that game in Chicago. We lost,” Vokoun said. “This one doesn’t feel as bad.”
The Penguins then had to kill off a penalty, but they took the lead for good when Letang and Kunitz beat Braden Holtby glove side 37 seconds apart. Washington coach Adam Oates thought about pulling Holtby at that point but decided against it.
Either way, the Capitals were on their heels.
“I think the biggest thing is just our mental game right now isn’t strong enough,” Holtby said. “We’re playing a good team game. It’s just those little breakdowns, and like myself on that third goal.”
Oates disputed that, saying he didn’t see a problem with his team’s mental approach.
“We made a couple mistakes, but other than that, I thought we played a good, solid hockey game,” Oates said. “Yeah, there’s things we can do better, of course, and we’ll address that, but I don’t look at that game as that it got away from us, because we were playing well.”
Mike Green and Mike Ribeiro also scored for the Capitals, who have lost seven of nine to start the season under their new coach.
Two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin, who said before the game that he was somewhat embarrassed to have only three points on the season, contributed a secondary assist on a third-period power-play goal with Washington trailing by three.
Certainly, the Capitals no longer look like the formidable team that beat Pittsburgh 5-4 in overtime with a hat trick from Ovechkin in 2010 and shut out the Penguins 3-0 a year ago—both feisty games that included punches thrown by Ovechkin.
Ovechkin was overly physical in this game as well, getting a roughing call in the final two minutes.
“It’s always tough when you have a new coach,” said Vokoun, who played last year for the Capitals under offensive-minded Bruce Boudreau and defensive-minded Dale Hunter. “You have three times in less than a year they changed the psychology of the team, how they play.”
Vokoun was traded by Washington after hurting his groin and getting eclipsed by Holtby in the playoffs. He’s doing fine in Pittsburgh, having shut out the New York Rangers on Thursday. He also expressed the kind of sentiment usually not heard amid participants in the Penguins-Capitals rivalry.
“I really enjoyed living here and playing,” Vokoun said, “so except when I’m playing against them I wish them the best.”
Notes: Ovechkin said before the game that he and other NHL players who spent the lockout playing in Russia should be doing better. “Right now I’m standing here, I have only three points, and, you know, it kind of embarrass me.” … The Capitals played the first of three games without D John Erskine, who was suspended for three games for elbowing Wayne Simmonds in Friday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
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