Change is good, they say. So perhaps the Penguins felt heartened when they gazed at the Washington bench Thursday night at the Verizon Center and saw steely eyed Dale Hunter perched behind Alexander Ovechkin and company instead of the departed Bruce Boudreau. After all, the Pens had beaten the Capitals just twice in the previous 13 meetings with the leprechaunish Boudreau at the helm.
Determined to break Washington’s stranglehold, the Penguins carried the play to the Caps during a rough-and-tumble first period. Sidney Crosby nearly struck for the game-opening goal, but his backhander from the right corner clanked off the iron.
Undaunted, the black and gold snatched the lead at 5:21 on a pretty play by the lunch-pail gang. Arron Asham dug the puck off the end boards and deftly fed Craig Adams at the far edge of the crease. The blue-collar winger rifled the rubber past Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun for his second goal of the season.
Seconds later Asham engaged big John Erskine in a toe-to-toe slugfest at center ice. Seeking retribution for Asham’s stunning kayo of Jay Beagle earlier in the season, the rugged Caps defender overcame a gutsy showing by the plucky Penguin to score a decision.
Suddenly out for blood, the home team ramped up the physical play. Ovechkin, who registered a game-high 10 hits, roughed up Pens rookie Robert Bortuzzo along the wall. Following a whistle, John Carlson banged into an unsuspecting Crosby with a blatant blind-side shoulder. With five minutes left in the opening period Erskine leveled Evgeni Malkin with a bone-crushing check.
The Caps body-bending tactics paid off early in the second period, when Jason Chimera walked out the left-wing corner and backhanded the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury to even the score at 1-1. As Washington gathered steam, the game began to take on the feel of previous encounters between the two clubs.
“Starting in the second, they came at us hard and forechecked hard,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma said. “They were tough to handle that way and were very aggressive on the forecheck and getting to the offensive zone. That may be something we hadn’t seen.”
Fortunately for the Pens, Fleury rose to the occasion with several key saves. Buoyed by “Flower’s” solid play between the pipes (16 saves), the Pens regained the lead at 2:36 of the final frame on a great individual effort by Chris Kunitz. The gritty winger snatched the puck from Nicklas Backstrom, blew around Erskine and drilled the puck past Vokoun for his second game-winning goal of the season.
Paul Martin (28:11 of ice time) was voted No. 1 star … Simon Despres (an assist and a plus-2) made his Penguins debut … Malkin fired off a game-high seven shots … Geno’s three-game goal scoring streak was snapped … Crosby was held pointless for the second time since his return … The Pens out-shot the Capitals 35-17 … The Caps registered just two third-period shots … Dustin Jeffrey, Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Steve MacIntyre, Zbynek Michalek, Brian Strait, and Joe Vitale were scratches.
The Penguins (15-7-4) wrap up their road trip with a visit to Carolina (8-15-4) Saturday night. The Hurricanes are 0-2 under Kirk Muller, who replaced Paul Maurice on Monday.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.