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Strong start springs Caps to critical win over Pens, bottom six has been tops since Kovalchuk's arrival, Holtby stops penalty shot, more

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps /

Start Me Up - Going into Pittsburgh to play their third game in less than 72 hours on Saturday afternoon, the Caps were in dire need of a victory. They put together strong starts in each of their previous games - scoring first in each - only to undercut themselves with a series of self-inflicted mistakes and penalties that resulted in ugly losses at night's end.

And afternoon games generally haven't been agreeable to the Caps this season. Heading into Saturday's matinee, they had been outscored 29-14 in the first 40 minutes of their afternoon games in 2019-20, and they had rolled the opposition by a combined 21-6 in the third period and overtime of those game.

The Caps put together a different recipe on Saturday, and it paid off handsomely with a 5-2 victory over the Penguins.

Video: Dowd, Oshie lift Capitals to 5-2 victory

Washington got a Nic Dowd goal before the game was two minutes old to take a 1-0 lead, a lead it would not relinquish. It continued to build on that advantage, carrying a 3-0 lead into the first intermission. It was the fourth time this season - and second time in less than a week - that the Caps managed to score three or more goals in the first period. But it was only the second time they led by as many as three goals after 20 minutes of play; they rolled out to a 4-0 first-period lead over Buffalo on Nov. 1 in a 6-1 victory at Capital One Arena.

"For whatever reason, they got some bounces and they got some odd-man rushes," said Pens goalie Matt Murray. "They're a skilled group, and they made us pay."

When it was all said and done, the first period was the difference.

"I think we came out with better urgency from the start," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "All over the ice, we were more aggressive and we were hungry out there. If you look at the last month, this is the way we've got to play. This is the consistency we've got to play with and have good confidence out there."

With Saturday's win, the Caps managed to go 1-1-1 through a rugged patch of Metro Division games shoe-horned into less than 72 hours. The victory also allowed the Caps to maintain their tenuous hold on the top spot in the Metro Division standings. Washington and Philadelphia hold identical records (41-20-7), but the Caps are officially in front by virtue of owning one more regulation/overtime victory than Philly (37 to 36).

Video: Postgame | March 7

Bottoms Up - Two weeks ago, the Caps added winger Ilya Kovalchuk in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens. The deal bolstered Washington's bottom six, pushing Richard Panik onto the team's fourth line with Dowd and Garnet Hathaway as Kovalchuk slotted into the right side of the team's third unit with Carl Hagelin and Lars Eller.

In the six games in which Kovalchuk has been in the Caps' lineup, Washington's bottom six forward group has combined for 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points. In Saturday's game, Dowd and Panik both scored, and Dowd registered the first two-goal and three-point game of his NHL career while Panik posted his second straight multi-point game.

"It's challenging to play all four of our lines," says Dowd. "We have guys playing too many minutes and when we need guys to make plays at the end of games, they've already played x amount of minutes. But I think when you're fourth line scores at any point of the game, you've got a good chance of winning."

Washington's top six is packed with skill and talent; four of its top six forwards have already eclipsed the 20-goal level and Evgeny Kuznetsov (19) is on the verge of doing so. The Caps' top six has combined for 150 goals in 68 games this season, with 112 of those tallies coming at even strength.

But the Caps' top six had been dry at 5-on-5 in each of the two previous games, both Washington losses. On Saturday, both Backstrom and T.J. Oshie cashed in at even strength for the Caps, supplementing the two 5-on-5 goals from the fourth line and Dowd's shorthanded strike.

Video: WSH@PIT: Oshie whips home wrist shot in the slot

There have been 13 games this season in which Washington's top six has not scored at 5-on-5, and the Capitals are 4-8-1 in those games.

Two For One - Late in the second period, Caps goalie Braden Holtby shut down Pittsburgh's Jared McCann on a breakaway on which McCann was hindered from behind by Washington blueliner Jonas Siegenthaler. The official saw fit to award McCann a penalty shot on the play, even though the Pittsburgh forward got a decent shot off on the breakaway, and it obviously would have counted had it gone into the net.

Holtby then flashed his right pad to deny McCann on the penalty shot, preserving what was a 3-0 Washington lead at the time. After the game, Holtby was asked if he was surprised by the call to give McCann a penalty shot.

"Yes and no," says Holtby. "I mean, it slowed him up; I don't think you can penalize a guy for fighting through it and get another shot at it. I think the refs do a good job on that stuff, so you just accept what it is, and you play through it."

Down On The Farm - The AHL Hershey Bears spent Saturday night in Hartford, facing the Wolf Pack for the second time in as many nights. The Bears skated off with their second win in as many nights, a 4-1 triumph over the Pack.

After a scoreless first frame, Hershey took control of the contest with three goals in the middle period. Matt Moulson started the scoring with his 21st goal of the season just 52 seconds into the second stanza, getting help from Brian Pinho and Bobby Nardella. Less than three minutes later Phillppe Maillet netted his 16th of the season - from Daniel Spring and Nardella - on a Hershey power play to double the advantage. At 9:05 of the second, Pinho scored his 20th with help from Nardella and Erik Burgdoerfer.

Vitek Vanecek's bid for a second straight shutout went by the wayside when Hartford scored midway through the third, and Tyler Lewington scored his fourth of the season into a vacant Wolf Pack net at 19:59 of the third, accounting for the 4-1 final.

Vanecek made 27 saves to improve to 19-10-1 on the season, and he is now two wins shy of matching his career high of 21 wins, established last season.

The 37-18-3-3 Bears lead the AHL's Atlantic Division by two points over Providence, which holds a game in hand on Hershey. The Bears will conclude a busy weekend of three games in as many days on Sunday afternoon when they face the red-hot P-Bruins in Providence. The Bruins have won 10 straight.

Down a level, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays made it a clean sweep Saturday for the Washington organization, skating to a 5-4 victory over the Idaho Steelheads in Boise.

Jesse Lees, Cameron Askew, Jaynen Rissling, Tom Parisi and Marly Quince scored for the Stingrays, with Quince's game-winner snapping a 4-4 tie with less than three minutes remaining. Logan Thompson made 45 saves to improve to 23-8-1-0 in the South Carolina nets.

The 44-13-3-1 Stingrays are tied with Florida for the top spot in the ECHL's South Division, but South Carolina holds a game in hand on the Everblades. South Carolina now heads back east, and it will visit the Solar Bears in Orlando on Wednesday.

By The Numbers - John Carlson led the Caps with 24:36 in ice time … Jonas Siegenthaler led Washington with 5:17 in shorthanded ice time; he was on for more than half of Pittsburgh's total time (8:17) on the power play … Hathaway and Dowd led the Caps with four shots on net each, and Hathaway led Washington with seven shot attempts in 10:26 of ice time … Caps captain Alex Ovechkin was held without a shot on goal for just the second time this season and for only the 15th time in his illustrious 1,151-game NHL career, but he and Tom Wilson had seven hits each to lead the Caps … Washington outhit Pittsburgh 45-26 on Saturday and has now outhit the Pens by a combined total of 137-85 in the three games between the two teams this season. The Caps have had at least 45 hits in each of their three games against the Pens … Nick Jensen led Washington with four blocked shots.

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