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Thursday, December 23, 2010
Pens' win over Caps builds anticipation

By Scott Burnside


We get that folks not connected to either the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals often grow tired of the bright light that shines on both these teams.

But for anyone who caught even five minutes of Thursday's terrific tilt between the Pens and Caps, the first of four meetings between the two post-lockout rivals and a nice lead-in to the Winter Classic (set for Jan. 1 in Pittsburgh), well, now you know why it is so.

Pascal Dupuis scored in the seventh round of the shootout to give the Penguins a 3-2 victory, but, and pardon the cliche here, it truly was hard to find any losers after this one.

Here are five things plus a bonus one that make us salivate a little at the prospect of next week's match at Heinz Field.

The captains

Part 1
Sidney Crosby scored the game's opening goal, his league-leading 29th, and no, it's not too much of a stretch to ask out loud: 50 in 50? Crosby added an assist on the Pens' second goal, 17 seconds into the third period, with a great one-handed effort that led to Chris Kunitz's goal. Crosby, who now has points in 23 straight games, led all Penguin forwards with 24:54 in ice time. Only Nicklas Backstrom of the Caps had more among forwards (25:11).

Part 2
Alex Ovechkin was once again without a goal, his eighth straight outing without tickling the twine, but make no mistake, Ovechkin was a presence in this game. He leveled countryman Evgeni Malkin early and had five total shots on goal. He continues to get looks but seems to be simply on the wrong side of the luck coin right now. To whit, seven minutes into the third period with the Caps trailing by one, Ovechkin stepped into the clear, but just as he was about to make a move on Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, the puck was dislodged from his stick by defenseman Brooks Orpik. Ovechkin did score in the shootout, but there is no question he needs to marry his effort with his customary production if the Caps are going to truly pull out of their recent funk.

Pascal Dupuis
Pascal Dupuis scored the decisive goal against Michal Neuvirth in the seventh round of the shootout.

The Mike Green show

Yes, the Pens won for the 15th time in 17 games Thursday, but there wasn't a better skater on the ice on this night than the oft-criticized Washington defenseman. With Tom Poti sidelined after taking a high stick early in the first period, Green saw his ice time jump to a season-high 34:03. He scored for the first time in 15 games when he blasted a shot home at the end of a long 5-on-3 to tie the score at 1. He had not scored since Nov. 14. The two-time Norris Trophy nominee also looked to have scored in overtime, making a dandy move around Fleury, who somehow got his trapper on the puck before it crossed the line. Or at least Fleury managed to cover the puck so no one really knew whether it went over the line, but it's been that kind of season for Green. Still, on this night, Green had six shots on goal to lead the Caps and provided reason for optimism that maybe the worst is behind the smooth-skating defender.

Flower power

Gee, it seems like a long time ago that Marc-Andre Fleury stunk, doesn't it? With Thursday's win, Fleury now has victories in 14 of his past 15 games. Not sure whether there's one stop that sticks out, but that's likely because there were so many of them. The Caps outshot the Pens 25-12 through the first two periods, and Fleury was solid in denying all the Caps' big guns, especially when the teams were playing at even strength. And this coming off a surprise appearance in Wednesday's 5-2 win over Florida in Pittsburgh when backup Brent Johnson was injured. Fleury's play Thursday reminded us of his play in Game 7 of the playoffs two seasons ago, when he stoned Ovechkin early on and the Pens went on to rout the Caps en route to a Stanley Cup championship.

The other guy

Speaking of goaltenders, Thursday was a bit of a litmus test for young Michal Neuvirth, the Caps' rookie netminder, who started the season on fire, went cold and now has reasserted himself as the No. 1 netminder in the nation's capital. After the Penguins took a 2-1 lead early in the third, Neuvirth was solid in holding the fort through a series of minor penalties by his teammates. The Pens outshot the Caps 11-5 in the final frame, and Neuvirth turned away the final 10 shots he faced in regulation along with four more in overtime and five of seven shootout attempts. He also denied Malkin on a penalty shot early in the second period. There was lots of buzz about the Caps being interested in Evgeni Nabokov now that the longtime San Jose netminder is a free agent, but Neuvirth's play of late should help calm the fretful waters for at least the time being.

The weird and the wacky

Kudos to the Caps' fans for creating a playoff-like atmosphere at Verizon Center, and credit both teams for providing lots of interesting moments to send us into the Christmas break.

Like Matt Cooke somehow managing to be whistled for a delay of game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass at the opposite end of the rink while killing a penalty. The miscue -- we defy anyone else to make that shot on purpose -- gave the Caps an extended 5-on-3 that led to their first goal of the game.

Then there was veteran forward Mike Knuble, so vocal during the second installment of HBO's "24/7" television series on the two teams, chugging down the ice while killing a penalty in the third period and somehow getting in the clear and then, in spite of being hooked by Alex Goligoski, tucking the puck between Fleury's pads for the tying goal. There is talking the talk, and then there is walking the walk.

All in all, this game was all about the walk regardless of the talk.