PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Alex Ovechkin blasted such a hard shot into the top corner of the net that Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau couldn’t see the puck go in even after watching the replay.
What chance, Boudreau wondered, did Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury have?
“That’s what he does,” Boudreau said in amazement after Ovechkin’s goal, combined with Michal Neuvirth’s 39 saves, were the difference in Washington’s 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night.
It was nothing, said Ovechkin, referring to his goal which came on the power-play with 3:22 left in the second period.
“I had lots of time to see what’s going on, and I just fired it,” Ovechkin said. “We beat a good team in a hard building to play. We got these points, just enjoy our day off.”
That day off, following a five-game road trip in which the Capitals went 3-2, wound up getting delayed. A snow storm that struck Pittsburgh hours before the game began forced the Capitals to spend the night.
They’ll return home Tuesday, knowing they continued their domination of the Penguins, completing their season series with a 3-0-1 edge, and improving to 10-0-2 against Pittsburgh since March 2008. More important, the win allowed the Capitals to inch to within a point of Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay and three points of the fourth-place Penguins in the Eastern Conference standings.
Pittsburgh came up empty despite outshooting the Capitals 39-24, showing plenty of jump but no finish for a team that’s down 10 regulars, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh hasn’t scored against Washington in 157:47 since Evgeni Malkin’s second-period goal in a 3-1 loss during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
“I thought we created a lot of chances, a lot of opportunities,” said Jordan Staal, who had a short-handed breakaway stopped by Neuvirth 50 seconds before Ovechkin’s goal. “Obviously, their goalie did a pretty good job of keeping us from the second rebounds. But I think we did a lot of good things.”
The Pens dropped to 2-5-1 in their past eight, though help is on the way. Hours prior to the game, Pittsburgh traded defenceman Alex Goligoski to Dallas in exchange for forward James Neal and defenceman Matt Niskanen.
“It’s a sign of confidence for us,” Maxime Talbot said. “Neal has been a force in this league, and we’re real excited to get him on the team.”
Though offensively challenged, the Penguins got a solid outing from Fleury. He stopped 23 shots, including foiling Ovechkin on a breakaway nine minutes into an entertaining, back-and-forth game.
Neuvirth proved better. He stopped 18 shots in the first period alone. He also got a little help from his goal posts, as Brett Sterling hit the right post early in the third period, while Deryk Engelland also clanged one off the post with 6:55 left in the second.
As for saves, Neuvirth kicked out his right pad to block Pascal Dupuis’ backhander from the left circle with 6:12 left in the first period. Less than three minutes later, he punched out his blocker to turn away Ryan Craig’s shot from the left circle, set up following a turnover by the Capitals in their own zone.
“I made a few saves early in the game and I was feeling pretty good,” Neuvirth said. “I was confident the whole game.”
Ovechkin’s goal was his first in four games against the Penguins.
Mike Knuble had a hand in setting it up by gaining the Penguins zone and getting a shot off that Fleury stopped. The rebound popped into the air and to Marcus Johansson, who gloved the puck down and fed a pass to Ovechkin, who wound up and blasted a shot beating Fleury over the right shoulder.
“When you see him stepping into it like that, you just want to get out of the way,” Knuble said. “You don’t know where that thing’s going, really. It was a great shot.”
The Pens-Caps rivalry has escalated this season, particularly after the Capitals’ 3-1 win in the Winter Classic at Pittsburgh on Jan. 1, a game in which Washington’s David Steckel collided with Crosby. It was the first of two hits to the head Crosby sustained in consecutive games, which has led to the Penguins’ captain missing the past 20 games with a concussion.
Penguins agitator Matt Cooke then targeted Ovechkin, tripping him with aknee-to-knee hit in the rematch on Feb. 6, which Washington won 3-0.
On Monday, Penguins fans did let up a cheer in the first period Pittsburgh defenceman Ben Lovejoy shoved Ovechkin, causing the Capitals captain to fall backward, after the whistle during a scrum in front of the Penguins’ net.
Cooke was targeted, as Washington’s Matt Bradley was penalized for charging for a heavy hit on the Penguins player in the Capitals zone midway through the second period.
NOTES: Penguins D Paul Martin is day to day after being shaken up by a hit at Chicago on Sunday. To fill his spot, Pittsburgh recalled D Brian Strait from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. … Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau entered the game with a 10-1-3 career record against the Penguins. … Penguins LW Chris Kunitz resumed practising Monday after missing six games with a lower body injury.