There was something entirely different about the Washington Capitals win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night.
It had a different tenor and tone than previous Capitals wins. The Penguins played hard Sunday night. However, they were outplayed, and eventually the Penguins were unnerved by the Capitals’ suffocating positional defense. The Capitals attacked the Penguins in the neutral zone, at the blue line and the Penguins attacked the Capitals … verbally.
The Capitals won the game and the Metro Division.
Not only did the Capitals win, but the Penguins also lost it. Literally and figuratively. The Penguins didn’t have swagger. The Capitals did.
Penguins assistant coach Mark Recchi was ejected for non-stop complaining late in the game. Moments earlier, Evgeni Malkin knocked T.J. Oshie‘s stick out of his hands and tried to fight him. Malkin also tried to fight Evgeny Kuznetsov as officials tried to get Malkin off the ice.
Kuznetsov’s crime? Chirping Malkin in Russian from the bench. Malkin earned a 10-minute misconduct penalty for his shenanigans.
“I’m not OK,” Malkin said. “We had so many chances but we didn’t score.”
It was a chippy, hack-and-whack sort of game. The Capitals displayed positional discipline and defensive responsibility throughout the game. The Penguins did not have space and had precious few rushes into the Capitals zone.
The Capitals didn’t take bad penalties in the third period. The Penguins did.
The Penguins sent a message to the Washington Capitals, and it read like this, “You won and we’re mad about it.”
As a radio reporter, I covered the March 1, 2016, game in Washington. The Penguins had a 2-0 lead before the Capital One Arena went bonkers. I mean bonkers. The Capitals furious rally culminated in a third period power-play goal. The D.C. arena rocked.
Afterward, the Penguins fumed. Holed up in the tiny visitors’ locker room which isn’t as large as some of your living rooms, the Penguins gritted their teeth as they spoke. Anger was palpable, but petulance was not. The Penguins could not wait to get another chance at the Capitals. A battered and bruised Sidney Crosby spoke deliberately with a tense fire in his eyes.
Yeah, it made an impression on me.
The result was an unyielding resolve, and the Penguins tore through the rest of their opponents with a vengeance, culminating in a Stanley Cup.
Compare that scene to last night.
On home ice, the Penguins lost their composure. They also made critical mistakes, such as Matt Hunwick and Malkin leaving the backside wide-open for Oshie on the Capitals’ first goal, and Olli Maatta not standing up Dmitry Orlov on the second goal.
Wake Up Call?
The New Jersey Devils beat the Penguins a couple weeks ago and the Penguins couldn’t wait to play them again.
The Capitals are a different story. The Devils are not as physically tough to play against as the Capitals. The Capitals popped the Penguins in the mouth. The Penguins response was to run their mouth.
It’s a far cry from “Just Play,” the Penguins’ oft-spoken mantra to focus their energy on hockey instead of reacting to missed calls, extralegal hits, and agitation.
Perhaps a pair of Stanley Cups has turned the Penguins hopes or expectations into assumptions. As Maatta told Pittsburgh Hockey Now …
“We’re probably going to see them again.”
Interesting. That would assume the Penguins “probably” win their first round series against Philadelphia Flyers or Columbus Blue Jackets. (Although the Devils could pass the Penguins and relegate the champions to the wild card, in which case they would earn a first-round date with the Capitals.)
Make no mistake, the Capitals fully challenged the Penguins on Sunday without fear or hesitation. They stacked the blue line on the power play, which forced the Penguins to waste valuable time while they circled the neutral zone looking for a lane.
The Capitals talked with confidence, even in Russian, as the Penguins talked in anger and some frustration.
Did the Capitals finally awake the sleeping giant or expose the cracks born of expectation and assumption? Perhaps both. We will soon find out who these Pittsburgh Penguins truly are because we have not yet seen their best hockey. Sunday night certainly wasn’t it.