WASHINGTON, D.C. - One would think that the crunching hits and thick tension would be saved for the Super Bowl Sunday evening. But inside Verizon Center Sunday afternoon, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins did their best impression.
The Capitals prevailed 3-0 over the Penguins in a game that featured plenty of physicality.
In a first period that featured almost twice as many combined hits as combined shots, the Capitals landed the first blow at 18:22. John Erskine fired a slap shot from the left point that caught Marc-Andre Fleury. Brooks Laich was in the crease and pounced on the rebound for his 11th goal of the season. There were no penalties in the first period, but blood was drawn when Mike Green left the game after taking a Brooks Orpik slap shot to the face. Green did not return, but said after the game that he was feeling fine.
The tensions flared once again in the second period. Mike Knuble thought he had an early goal to put the Capitals up 2-0, but it was washed out after the referee ruled that Matt Hendricks had interfered with Fleury. Yet, with Hendricks in the box for goaltender interference, Marcus Johansson made sure that his goal would count. Johansson entered the zone and fired a top shelf backhand that caught Fleury flat-footed for a shorthanded goal at 3:58. It was Johansson's seventh goal of the season.
"The puck bounced from their defense and I got it," Johansson said. "[David Steckel] did a good job going to the net and I think Fleury didn't see the puck coming. It's a little lucky."
It was in the final period where the animosity could no longer be contained. First, Tim Wallace went after Steckel and the two fought, perhaps in retaliation for Steckel's collision with Sidney Crosby in the Winter Classic that has the Pittsburgh captain suffering from concussion symptoms. Later, Matt Cooke would make a knee-to-knee hit on Alex Ovechkin that caused every player on the ice to get involved. Ovechkin would ultimately return to the ice after shaking off the effects.
With the Penguins pressing, Michal Neuvirth stood his ground in making 22 saves for the shutout. Neuvirth received a text from Capitals goaltending coach Arturs Irbe that Semyon Varlamov was feeling sick and did not find out about his start until he arrived Sunday morning. During HBO's "24/7," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma remarked that Neuvirth wasn't that good, but Neuvirth made sure to tell him otherwise.
"Before the game, I remembered when he said that and I kind of looked at him during the warm up and told myself that I got to shut these guys out tonight," Neuvirth said.
Knuble would make up for his no-goal with the empty-netter to seal the victory. The Capitals won't have long to enjoy the win; the San Jose Sharks come to Verizon Center Tuesday as a precursor to a West Coast road trip starting next week.
"We know how tough our schedule is," head coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We were on top of our game. The realization that winning is fun. When [the Caps] play that way and they're committed, it's a great team effort."