As I watched the Capitals and Penguins from the press box Sunday afternoon, the energy from the fans in the stands was palpable. This NHL rivalry has a very sharp edge to it, and it was definitely evident from those in attendance.
The visitors would score twice in the opening period and both came via deflections. It was apparent from the start that Pens Coach Dan Bylsma wanted traffic in front of Braden Holtby and his charges would obey.
Chris Kunitz parked himself about 10 feet in front of Holtby, and while he was being tied up by a Caps defender, a Paul Martin shot banked off the D and into the corner of the net while Holtby was leaning the other way.
Washington would respond in less than two minutes. Mike Green was well up-ice rushing in toward the goal guarded by former Cap Tomas Vokoun. He was taken hard into the boards and the puck rolled to the far corner. Green picked himself up and worked back into the high slot where he would take a short relay from Wojtek Wolski before blasting the puck over Vokoun on the glove side. Mike Ribeiro and Alex Ovechkin put in strong work along the boards to set the wheels in motion.
The Pens would re-take the lead at the 8:20 mark. Another former Cap Matt Cooke ran through Holtby’s sight line (and maybe nudged him a bit) before he deflected a heavy shot from Deryk Engelland into the corner of the goal.
There would be several more quality scoring chances in the period. Brandon Sutter, a former Carolina Hurricane, would clang a wrist shot off the post less than a minute after the Cooke marker.
Nicklas Backstrom fanned on the business end of a two-on-one break a few minutes later.
Holtby made two saves on clean breakaways in the opening frame. He stoned both Zach Boyhuk and Sidney Crosby, one-on-one, with the latter coming with only three minutes to go in the first.
The Caps received some very good fortune to start middle period, but it would not hold up over the full 20 minutes.
John Carlson worked the puck through center ice and was casually dumping it behind the Pens net, when the puck hit a seam in the glass and made a crazy carom into the goal. Vokoun had left the cage open anticipating the puck was headed behind the goal.
The Penguins responded swiftly. After Holtby robbed Boychuk again, it would be Kris Letang who beat him with a wrist shot that squirted through the goalies’ glove-side arm and body.
Only 37 seconds later, Crosby dropped a pass back for Kunitz who hammered a slapper over the shoulder of Holtby.
The Pens made it three in a row with Kunitz, getting his second of the day on a power-play, taking a pretty cross-ice pass from Evgeni Malkin and banking the re-direct off the far post and into the cage.
The Capitals attempt for a third-period comeback began with a Mike Ribeiro power-play goal early in the frame.
It came as the end result of scrambly play in front of Vokoun. A pass intended for Backstrom banked off a defenders’ boot right to Ribeiro who chipped it into the open net.
Ovechkin appears to be getting more comfortable creating off right-wing rushes. Vokoun made a very nice glove save on the Caps captain with about 8 minutes left. Ribeiro and Wolski worked a quick combination passing play to send Alex in on Vokoun.
On his next shift, Ovechkin kept his skates driving wide, turned the corner on the defender and threatened Vokoun again, soaring through the air at the end of the play.
Kunitz would close the scoring with his hat-trick goal coming on a two-man advantage with just eight seconds left. The many Penguin fans in attendance were allowed one final roar in a 6-3 win for their favorites.
These two teams will reconvene at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh for their next round on Thursday. Be sure to tune in on Comcast SportsNet for that one.
The Capitals and CSN-Washington are back together once more in two nights time for a Tuesday evening clash with Toronto.