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Penguins beat Capitals in game of bad bounces, bad blood

December 20, 2018

Good things can’t last forever.

The Washington Capitals entered Wednesday having gone 12-2-0 in their last 14 games, but the rival Pittsburgh Penguins victimized them for a 2-1 loss at Capital One Arena.

Lars Eller scored Washington’s goal, but a second period Bryan Rust score that took a few unpredictable hops turned out to be the difference. The Capitals also saw a few shots come teasingly close to the net, stopped either by the pipe or a defender’s outstretched stick.

Individual defense was tight and fierce for most of the game, and both Braden Holtby and Matt Murray had stellar nights in net. Holtby saved 28 shots and Murray stopped 31.

Alex Ovechkin’s streak of 14 straight games with a point was finally snapped, as well as Evgeny Kuznetsov’s eight-game assist streak.

“I think we created more than enough chances to score a couple goals more,” Eller said. “We did a lot of good things, just didn’t get a couple saves on the goal line and off the post and stuff, so just one of those days.”

In a game with 13 combined penalties, the Capitals (20-10-3) finished 0-for-5 on the power play.

“We had a couple too many failed entries and I think we got some good chances, some good looks like we’re used to, but missing the net a little bit too much,” defenseman John Carlson said. “You’re not putting it in the right spots if you’re not trying to score, and those become easy clears for them where they don’t really have to work for them.”

Tom Wilson, ever under the Penguins’ skin in the rivalry’s recent years, took down 6-foot-7 Pittsburgh defenseman Jamie Oleksiak in a fight 55 seconds into the game. Oleksiak had gone out of his way to hit Matt Niskanen, in Wilson’s view.

“You know, Oleksiak plays tough,” Wilson said. “He’s a big part of their team, and he came out pretty aggressive right on the first shift there. He went a long way to make that hit, and right when we looked at each other, it was on. You know, that’s hockey.”

Oleksiak was seen with a bloody cheek and did not return to the game.

Capitals coach Todd Reirden said he wouldn’t have been surprised whether Wilson fought Wednesday or not.

“I think if it was gonna happen, I expected it would happen like that,” Reirden said. “It was two competitive guys and two tough guys.”

Kris Letang shoved Ovechkin a few minutes later and the captain pushed back, leading to a net scrum and matching roughing minors. But the fighting simmered down after that. The first period went by without a goal as the Capitals defended two Pittsburgh power play opportunities.

Eller broke the scoreless knot almost seven minutes into the second frame. Matt Niskanen checked Jake Guentzel in front of the blue line and caused him to turn the puck over. Wilson picked it up and popped it over to Eller on a 2-on-1 breakaway.

But the lead fizzled away quickly after Michal Kempny was called for tripping, his second penalty of the game. On the power play, Evgeni Malkin found Sidney Crosby at Holtby’s left pipe and Crosby redirected Malkin’s pass into the net, his team-best 16th goal of the season.

The Penguins kept it going with a less straightforward goal. With two minutes left in the period, Bryan Rust put a puck on net that bounced among Guentzel, Niskanen, Eller and Holtby. Crosby took a swipe at it in mid-air, but didn’t make contact with it and perhaps blew it over the line instead. Rust was credited with the goal.

Kuznetsov nearly scored a power-play goal in the third. It trickled through Murray’s five-hole and touched the goal line before hitting the pipe. Many in the building thought it was a goal, but Todd Reirden and Washington’s video coaches did not choose to challenge.

Soon after, an Eller wrist shot squeezed by Murray and nearly crossed the line, but a Penguin got his stick in the way just in time.

Both cases came down to pure luck, or lack thereof a matter of centimeters. Reirden said the Capitals’ video department discussed both plays after the league’s initial reviews.

“They didn’t suggest we should (challenge), so it’s a combination of both things in that situation,” he said. “That to me is how the game went. Like I said, we had some chances that trickled through them, and they weren’t able to find the back of the net. It was a hard-fought game by both teams, as expected in this type of a rivalry.”

Washington pulled Holtby in the final two minutes to add a sixth skater, and Ovechkin had more than one shot at the game-tying goal, but the Capitals came up short.

The game, broadcast nationally on NBC Sports Network’s “Wednesday Night Hockey,” had a playoff feel to it.

“It was a good game, especially for this time of year,” Holtby said. “We’re (in) a playoff mentality. We haven’t really had one of those since Vegas and it was good to have it. Obviously, you don’t want to end up on the losing side, but I think we did a lot of good things tonight and both teams played really well. It was a good hockey game to play, you can look at and see the positives and the areas where you can have more success, one you can really learn from.”

“We knew it was going to be a healthy challenge and a competitive game, an intense game,” Reirden said. “Lots of guys paying the price, blocking shots and making tough plays and taking hits to make plays.”

Pittsburgh took a 2-1 series lead so far this season. The rivals won’t meet again until March.

The Capitals host the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, then take a quick trip to play the Ottawa Senators in Canada Saturday.

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