Six Blade Knife - Two weeks ago today in Boston, the Caps started a six-game span of late season scheduling against the three other likely Stanley Cup playoff entrants from the NHL's East Division. That matinee match in Beantown against the Bruins was followed by a trio of tilts against the New York Islanders and two more against Pittsburgh. Three of the games were played on the road and three were here in D.C.
Each night, the divisional lead was on the line when the Caps took the ice. They managed to maintain control of their divisional destiny right up to the end of that sixth game, which was a 3-0 loss to the Penguins on Saturday night in Washington. That loss leaves the Caps two points behind the Pens for the top spot in the division; Washington has five games remaining and Pittsburgh has four.
The Caps went 3-2-1 over that six-game span against likely playoff opponents, with all three victories coming at New York's expense.
Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry stopped all 24 shots he faced and Bryan Rust scored twice - once early in the first, and again early in the second - to provide twice as much support as Jarry would require in Saturday's contest. Rust reached the 100-goal level for his NHL career in the process. With 22 goals on the season, Rust is tied for the Pittsburgh team lead and tied for 13th in the League.
A third-round pick (80th overall) in the 2010 NHL Draft who played collegiate hockey at Notre Dame, Rust has put together two straight seasons with 20 or more goals, both of them in shortened campaigns.
"I'm proud of him," says Pens coach Mike Sullivan of Rust. "We were together in the American League in Wilkes-Barre. "I've seen his game at the American League level and seen him grow into the player that he is right now, and I couldn't be happier for him or more proud of him. I just think he has turned himself into a real impact player. He understands how to play to his strengths, and he has developed his offensive game as good as any young player that I've been around as a coach in 20-something years of coaching in this League."
The Penguins were typically opportunistic, making the most of their scoring chances to put the Capitals in chasing mode early in the game. Both of Rust's goals were unassisted and came on breakaways. The first came at 2:56 of the first period when Caps winger Garnet Hathaway lost his footing while attempting to keep a puck in at the Pittsburgh line. The second came after Rust blocked a Dmitry Orlov point drive and outraced the Washington defenseman to the resulting loose puck, putting the Pens up 2-0 just 26 seconds into the second period.
A third Pittsburgh goal came midway through the third when Kris Letang's feed to the front for Jeff Carter bounded off the center's skate and into the net.
Pittsburgh (6-2-0) won six of the eight meetings between the two longtime rivals this season, but the Caps earned at least a point in six of eight as well (2-2-4).
"I think they all played out the same," says Caps coach Peter Laviolette of the season's series between the Caps and the Pens. "Almost every game was identical; the team that capitalized won the game. Even just going back to [Thursday's 5-4 Pens win in overtime], we took our look in overtime, it didn't go. They took theirs, it went. And so that's the difference in the game.
"Tonight, it was definitely not volume. It was a couple of things that happened, and they got a couple of really good looks and they put them in. That's pretty much the way it's been for me, every game has looked the same. If we see them in the playoffs, it will look the same."
Running On Empty - Saturday night's whitewash was the third suffered by the Caps in less than a month, and in a span of 13 games. The Caps actually claimed two points in one of those shutouts; a 1-0 shootout win on Long Island behind Ilya Samsonov on April 22. Ex-Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov blanked them 1-0 on April 6 in New York as well. Washington went through the first 38 games of the season without being shutout.
Down On The Farm - The AHL Hershey Bears were on the road on Saturday afternoon, facing the Baby Pens at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Each team scored one goal in each period of the game, but the Bears skated off with a 4-3 overtime victory on Connor McMichael's game-winner in the extra session.
Three times the Baby Pens went up by a goal, and three times the Bears tied it. After the Baby Pens went up 1-0 early in the first, Cameron Schilling responded with his fourth goal of the season at 3:15 of the first, getting help from Philippe Maillet and Reece Willcox.
After the Baby Pens regained the lead early in the second, Hershey's Alex Alexeyev answered back less than three minutes later. With help from Kale Kessy and Riley Sutter, Alexeyev scored his second of the season at 7:26 of the second to make it a 2-2 game.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forged ahead for the third time early in the third, but again the Bears wasted little time in responding. Just over two minutes later, Hershey knotted the game at 3-3 on Kessy's second goal of the season, with Sutter earning the solo assist.
That set the stage for McMichael's overtime heroics. He scored his 11th goal of the season with a single assist from Alexeyev at 1:41 of the extra session, McMichael's League-leading sixth game-winning goal of the season.
Pheonix Copley stopped 20 shots in the Hershey nets to improve to 9-3-1 on the season. With the win, Hershey improved to 19-6-2-0 on the season. The Bears are back in action on Sunday afternoon when they host Lehigh Valley at Giant Center.
By The Numbers - Zdeno Chara led the Caps with 21:26 in ice time … Justin Schultz, Lars Eller and Anthony Mantha had three shots on net each to lead Washington … Eller led the Capitals with eight shot attempts … Brenden Dillon, Daniel Sprong and Nic Dowd laid five hits each to tie for the team lead … Chara blocked four shots to lead the Caps.