Facing a Metro Division foe for the third time in less than 72 hours on Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, the Caps put together a strong 60-minute effort with contributions from up and down the lineup. A fabulous first frame paid big dividends, supplying the difference in a convincing 5-2 victory over the Penguins.
Nic Dowd scored twice and had the first three-point game of his NHL career and Braden Holtby made 26 saves - including a handful at key moments of the game - to help the Caps shake off a two-game slide (0-1-1) and get back in the win column.
"Always a tough building for us to come into and play," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "The start was important for us; it's something we've focused on the last little while here, especially with our afternoon games."
Washington turned in what has to be its best first period in an afternoon game this season. The Caps' fourth line got them started with a strong forecheck on the trio's first shift of the game, and it paid off with an early lead.
Richard Panik got into the zone and pushed the puck around the wall to Garnet Hathaway below the goal line. Hathaway spotted Nic Dowd cruising into the slot and fed him perfectly, and Dowd did the rest, snapping a shot behind Pittsburgh's Matt Murray to give the Caps a 1-0 lead at 1:52.
Video: WSH@PIT: Dowd buries one-timer in the slot
"If any line's first shift scores a goal right out of the gate, that's a good start," says Dowd. "And it seems like we've been on the other end of that for the last month, and we end up chasing games."
As they've done too frequently in recent games, the Caps put themselves in penalty trouble after their quick start. Before the first frame was halfway over, Washington had to face down a 5-on-3 Pittsburgh power play for 85 seconds. The Caps managed to skirt danger, keeping the Pens off the board and limiting them to a single shot with the man advantage.
"Five-on-threes are usually important momentum shifts and swings in games," says Pens captain Sidney Crosby. "We had one and didn't capitalize."
Late in the first, the Caps doubled their lead, going 200 feet to score after some strong defensive work in their own end. Nicklas Backstrom put a hit on Evgeni Malkin in the corner of the Washington end, shaking the puck loose for Jonas Siegenthaler, who broke it out to T.J. Oshie at the Washington line. Oshie went cross-ice to Jakub Vrana, springing him on a 2-on-1 with Backstrom. Vrana fed Backstrom, who chipped a shot over Murray's shoulder from in tight to make it a 2-0 game at 16:15.
The Caps weren't done, as the fourth line came through with another tally late in the frame. Dowd carried down the left side into Pittsburgh ice on a 2-on-1, issuing a nifty backhand feed to late-arriving Nick Jensen at center point. Jensen fed Panik perfectly, and from a tight angle off the right post, Panik netted his ninth of the season for a 3-0 Washington lead at 18:38.
Video: WSH@PIT: Panik pots goal at the doorstep
"I think it was a case where we duplicated jobs in some of the wrong areas of the rink," says Pens coach Mike Sullivan of the number of odd-man rushes his team allowed in the first. "We got caught into the piles and as a result, we didn't support one another. If a [defenseman] is going down the wall to keep a puck alive, we've got to make sure we get a reload; we stay on the right side of people, we stay on the right side of the puck. I thought we fell victim to that in particular in the first period."
In the second, the Caps killed off a Pittsburgh power play early in the frame, and then weathered a late surge from their hosts. Holtby stopped Jared McCann on a breakaway with 1:12 left, but officials also awarded McCann a penalty shot on the same play. The Pittsburgh forward teed up another chance from the red line, and Holtby stopped that one, too.
In the waning seconds of the frame, a goalmouth scramble took place in front of the Washington net, and Brenden Dillon was busted for knocking the net off its moorings, one of the better penalties the Caps have taken recently. Pittsburgh got a carryover power play, and the Caps carried a 3-0 lead to the third.
Washington promptly extended its advantage with a shorthanded strike in the first minute, as Carl Hagelin set up Dowd's second of the game on another 2-on-1 rush at the Pittsburgh at :34 of the third to make it a 4-0 game.
Pittsburgh finally broke Holtby's spell when Crosby scored from the top of the paint at 5:09, and Holtby prevented the Pens from seizing momentum with a pair of stellar stops on Patrick Marleau on the very next shift.
The Pens eventually cut the lead to 4-2 when Malkin scored a power-play goal at 12:16.
Pittsburgh possesses more than enough firepower to comeback from multi-goal deficits, but the Caps quickly responded to dash any local hopes of such a turnabout. Less than a minute after Malkin's marker, Backstrom set up Oshie for a slot shot, and he didn't miss. His one-timer beat Murray to make it 5-2 at 13:12.
Saturday's victory pushes the Caps five points ahead of the third-place Penguins in the Metro Division standings. The two teams will meet one more time here in Pittsburgh, two weeks from tomorrow on March 22.
"I think the win means a lot," says Oshie, "but I think the way we played means more. Obviously we give up a couple there late, but from the top all the way down, everyone had the same effort tonight. Dowder's line and Lars [Eller's] line, they bring that effort every night. When we get the top two [lines] working that same way, we're going to have success and we're going to be hard to beat."
Video: Postgame | March 7
"Very similarly [to the previous two games], we got out to the 1-0 lead, and then we had to kill a penalty right away," says Reirden. "The difference was, we killed it.
"For the most part, a really good team effort. A lot of contributions from everybody, and we'll gladly take two points."
The Caps are off to Buffalo now, where they will conclude their three-game road trip on Monday night against the Sabres. Pittsburgh hosts Carolina on Sunday afternoon.