WASHINGTON – Locked in a defensive struggle against their bitter rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t get a point from Sidney Crosby and scored only twice, yet still found a way to beat the Washington Capitals.
Chris Kunitz scored the winner at 2:36 of the third period, and the Penguins escaped with a 2-1 victory Thursday night to keep Washington winless under new coach Dale Hunter.
Craig Adams also scored for the Penguins, who improved to 4-1-1 since Crosby returned to the lineup following an 11-month absence with a concussion. It was the fewest goals that Pittsburgh has scored in a victory this season.
After taking over for Bruce Boudreau on Monday, Hunter has attempted to install a new system that stresses defence and forechecking. The Penguins adjusted accordingly and outdid the Capitals at their own game, allowing only two shots in the decisive third period.
“We were pretty committed to making sure we didn’t turn pucks over,” Crosby said. “Our ‘D’ did a great job. We’ve got some guys who are new, and they did a great job of going in there and taking some hits to make plays. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Earlier in the day, Pittsburgh recalled defenceman Simon Despres from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. In his NHL debut, the 20-year-old got the second assist on Kunitz’s goal.
Crosby was held without a point for only the second time in six games since his return. He sustained his concussion by taking two blows to the head last January, the first of which came against the Capitals on New Year’s Day in the Winter Classic. Since coming back, the standout centre has two goals and nine assists.
Even though he didn’t add to those numbers, Crosby had no complaints.
“You play to win,” he said. “I had a few chances but they kept a pretty tight seal on things, and when teams do that, you have to capitalize. Unfortunately, I didn’t. But we did a good job and played a good game.”
Crosby’s lengthy absence, along with the ineffectiveness this season of Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, has dimmed one of the NHL’s most notable individual duels. Ovechkin was also held without a point, and he has only one goal in his last 10 games.
Ovechkin remains confident that the Capitals will start to supplement their defence with a few goals on the other end.
“I think it’s a little period of time when we have to find our way back to get success, back to what we used to be,” he said. “We’re not going to lose every game. But we have to score more than one goal to win the game.”
Jason Chimera scored his team-leading 10th goal for the Capitals, who were 11-0-2 against their bitter rivals in the regular season since March 8, 2009.
Tomas Vokoun stopped 33 shots, but Washington couldn’t back his effort with any firepower on the offensive end. The Capitals took only 17 shots against Marc-Andre Fleury in their second straight 2-1 loss under Hunter.
“We had a few chances around the net,” Hunter said. “We’re getting better at it. It just takes time.”
Asked if he was worried about the team losing confidence, he replied, “It’s tight games. If you’re getting blown out you start to doubt, but 2-1 and 2-1, we were right in it.”
Kunitz got the game-winner by skating around a check by John Erskine and firing a wrist shot that bounced off Vokoun and bounded into the net.
“Erskine tripped and fell. That’s what opened it up,” Hunter said.
Washington has lost four straight and seven of nine.
The Penguins took a 1-0 lead at 5:21 of the first period when Arron Asham gained control of the puck behind the net, skated out and sent a pass across the slot to Adams, who scored from the left side.
Six seconds later, Asham and Erskine dropped their gloves and got into an old-fashioned hockey fight. Both landed several good blows before tumbling to the ice.
The Penguins outshot the Capitals 13-4 in the opening 20 minutes. Crosby had two shots, and 11 of his teammates had one apiece.
It got tougher for Pittsburgh after that.
“Starting in the second, they came at us hard and forechecked hard,” coach Dan Bylsmasaid. “They were tough to handle that way and were very aggressive on the forecheck and getting to the offensive zone. That may be something we hadn’t seen.”
Washington pulled even at 1:20 of the second period when Chimera lifted an up-close backhander over Fleury’s left shoulder.
NOTES: Seven of the last 11 games between the teams have been decided by one goal. … In the 22 games that Ovechkin and Crosby have gone head-to-head, Pittsburgh is 13-7-2. … Chimera’s 10 goals match his output last season.