Caps fade when pressure rises vs. Penguins

December, 1, 2011
12/01/11
11:46
PM ET

WASHINGTON -- After taking in the first two games of the Dale Hunter era, both ending in 2-1 losses following Thursday's defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, here are a few observations:

Confidence: Whatever happened to the Capitals' swagger?

The Caps insisted after Thursday's loss that their confidence remains high in spite of losing four straight and having won just two of their past 10 games. OK.

But this is a team that seems to sag whenever confronted with even the least little bit of adversity.

After giving up what would turn out to be the winning goal before the third period was three minutes old – a quick rising shot by Chris Kunitz that eluded netminder Tomas Vokoun – the Capitals managed just two shots on goal. Two.

The team's best chance to score came when 20-year-old Cody Eakin fanned on a shot in the slot. With all due respect to Eakin, it shouldn't be on his shoulders to get the Caps on track.

Back in the day, the Kunitz goal would have been a gnat buzzing in an elephant's ear for the high-octane Capitals. Not anymore.

The Caps were outshot 35-17 on the night and have been outshot in four straight games.

"It's tough to win with one goal," offered Vokoun, who made a number of outstanding saves to keep the game close.

[+] EnlargeChris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesChris Kunitz scored the game-winning goal in the third period, a quick rising shot that eluded Caps netminder Tomas Vokoun.
"It's definitely not easy when things are not going well and we're not getting, obviously we're not getting that pressure in their zone and we're not scoring."

Forechecking: The Capitals certainly looked a lot better at times on Thursday than they did in Hunter's first game as a head coach, when they were beaten 2-1 by St. Louis. And if there is an early indication how this team is going to be different than they were under Bruce Boudreau, it's in their aggressiveness. That will come as no surprise given the way Hunter played the game. And the Capitals, who boast an impressive array of big, fast forwards, did give the Penguins all they could handle on the forecheck.

Often these stats are more than a little subjective, but the Capitals were credited with 43 hits on the night to just 28 for the Penguins.

Even if there is a hometown bias to the hit-counting, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged the physicality on the forecheck was a new wrinkle from the Hunter-led Caps.

"I know that there's a lot about that team that is scary in terms of the skill that they bring," Bylsma said. "I thought today, especially in the second, they came at us hard and forechecked hard and were tough to handle that way and were very aggressive on the forecheck in getting to the offensive zone and that may be something we hadn't seen."

The big boys: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for zero points. But both Crosby and Malkin were engaged offensively and generated a handful of terrific scoring chances.

Malkin in particular was impressive, using his size and skill to generate chances in the Washington zone. Is there any doubt that Malkin, whose five-game point streak (four goals, five assists) was broken, has eclipsed Ovechkin as the most dominant Russian player in the NHL?

As for Ovechkin, it was another pedestrian night in a season marked by pedestrian performances, at least in terms of creating offense. Ovechkin was credited with 10 hits, the most of any player in the game, and had 19:22 in ice time.

The Washington captain produced just one shot on goal, and he set up Backstrom for a glorious chance in the second period that seemed to glance off the crossbar. But other than a few big hits, it was another disappointing night for Ovechkin, who has scored just once on home ice this season, has just one goal in his last eight games and, quite frankly, looks a little lost.

"It's just a little bit period of time when we have to find our way to get success back to what we used to be," Ovechkin said. "It's not frustrating, it's just a moment, a period of life.

"We score one goal. We have to score more than one goal to win the game."

Depth: As has been the case for many Caps games this season, the line of Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward was the best forward unit for Washington. And kudos to Chimera, who collected the only Washington goal, stepping out from the goal line and snapping a wicked backhand past Marc-Andre Fleury that tied the game at 1-1 early in the second period.

Chimera leads the Capitals with 10 goals, matching his goal output for all of last season. That is a good news/bad news situation.

It's good news that the Capitals can rely on someone other than Backstrom, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin to provide scoring. It's bad news, though, in that your depth guys aren't supposed to be leading the team, at least not on a team that has as much talent as this Caps team.

"It can't be down the line. It's got to be now," Chimera said of the need to adapt to their new coach and new systems. "We got to get people stepping up and scoring some goals, doing the little things."

Penguins' lineup: Although Crosby did not register a point for the second time since returning from a concussion, the Penguins' record with him in the lineup is now 4-1-1.

The Penguins were without defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Kris Letang, both of whom remained in Pittsburgh with injuries. Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres filled in, with Despres picking up an assist on the game-winner in his first NHL game.

"We were pretty committed to making sure we didn't turn pucks over. Our [defense] did a great job," Crosby said.

"We've got some guys who are new and they did a great job of going in there and taking some hits to make plays, and that's what you have to do."

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