WASHINGTON -- The Capitals might be finding their mojo at just the right time.
For the second time in three days Washington put together a strong 60-minute effort and came away with the two points to show for it. On Sunday, it was a 3-0 win over the injury-depleted Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center in a rematch of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic that didn't include Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or a driving rain but did feature a retribution fight and another questionable collision involving a superstar.
The Capitals, who won at Tampa Bay on Friday, remain three points behind the Lightning in the Southeast Division. Tampa Bay beat St. Louis in overtime on Sunday afternoon. The Caps are also four points behind the fourth-place Penguins.
"For us to get anywhere near the top again we're going to have to string together a winning streak of six, seven or eight games; win nine of 10 to catch the teams ahead of us," said Capitals forward Brooks Laich, whose 11th goal of the season stood up as the winner Sunday. "To do it against two good opponents is nice, but the main thing is the four points and jumping up in the standings."
Washington, which is 10-1-3 against the Penguins since Bruce Boudreau took over more than three years ago, did all of its damage within the first 24 minutes of the game. Laich scored on a rebound with 1:38 left and Marcus Johansson cashed in on the first shorthanded goal of his career 3:58 into the second. Mike Knuble added an empty-net goal in the final minute.
Johansson pounced on a flubbed pass by Penguins All-Star defenseman Kris Letang at the far blue line and raced the length of the ice, knifing down the center lane before roofing a backhander over Marc-Andre Fleury's right shoulder. David Steckel was driving toward the net too and might have served as a distraction to Fleury, who never flinched as the puck went over him.
"We see flashes of this every few games and when he's on he's really good," Boudreau said of Johansson, who has 7 goals in 41 games. "He was on (Sunday). He provided the spark for that whole line."
The third period got interesting as Steckel finally had to answer for his highly publicized and debated collision with Crosby in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and Alex Ovechkin was nearly taken out by a trip from Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke.
Tim Wallace, who was playing his first game of the season for the Penguins, challenged and fought Steckel with 12:08 to play in the third period. Steckel, you may remember, sent Crosby spinning to the ice at the end of the second period at Heinz Field on Jan. 1 with what appeared to be an unintentional hit.
The general consensus is that hit started Crosby's concussion problems, which were exacerbated four days later against Tampa Bay when he was struck in the back of the head defenseman Victor Hedman. Crosby hasn't played since and the Penguins' refuse to speculate on a timetable for his return. He spent this weekend with his parents up at his home in Nova Scotia.
Bylsma was pleased that Wallace, who hadn't played in an NHL game since 2009, stepped up to take on Steckel. He wasn't surprised that the guy who eventually took the honors did not play in the Winter Classic.
"We all were watching the game, whether we were there or on TV," Bylsma said.
Boudreau brushed it off as nonsense on the Penguins' part.
"If they want to use it as a motivating tool go ahead, but then they sent out a guy they called up instead of Mike Rupp, who is a fighter," Boudreau said. "That, to me, it was crap."
The rivalry, which really doesn't need any more fuel, got some anyway when Cooke and Ovechkin collided with 3:42 to play in the third period. Cooke received a tripping penalty, but not before he got whacked in the back of the legs by Jeff Schultz and punched in the face by Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
"I just tracked the puck," Cooke said. "He cut back on me. We clicked skates."
Ovechkin had to flex his leg a few times, but he was fine and returned to play during the ensuing power play.
"That's his game, he plays like that," Ovechkin said of Cooke. "It's OK."
Boudreau doesn't think so.
"It's Matt Cooke, OK. Need we say more?" Boudreau said. "It's not like it's his first rodeo. He's done it to everybody and then he goes to the ref and says, 'What did I do?' He knows darn well what he did. There's no doubt in my mind that he's good at it and he knows how to do it, he knows how to pick this stuff. We as a League still buy into this that it was an accidental thing."
The Capitals won despite playing with only five defenseman in the final two periods as Mike Green did not return after getting struck in the right ear by Brooks Orpik's one-timer in the final moments of the first period. Green went down in a heap and immediately blood starting pouring on to the ice. He received stitches but said he should be OK.
"Everything happened so quickly," Green said. "It was just ringing a little bit and once it went away I was fine. I was a little unbalanced when I went off the ice but I feel fine now."
Pittsburgh owned the territorial advantage in the third period, but Washington still limited the Penguins to only seven shots. Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth, who got the start because Semyon Varlamov was sick Saturday night, stopped all 22 shots he saw for his second shutout of the season and his career.
Bylsma was not happy with his team's offensive aggression.
"Definitely we didn't get to that part of the game," Bylsma said. "We had chances to do that and didn't take advantage of it. He did make some saves as we did have a couple of flurries, couple of pucks in the crease that he was strong on, but we could have been much better."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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