Thursday October 13th, 2011

Perhaps a spirited battle against the rival Penguins will spark Caps captain Alexander Ovechkin, who was chided by coach Bruce Boudreau for a lackluster start, and his linemates. (Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE)

By Stu Hackel

Last season's Winter Classic and HBO 24/7 foes, the Penguins and Capitals, squared off for their first meeting of the season on Thursday night in a game full of storylines and import for two of the NHL's marquee squads, not the least of which is Alex Ovechkin's start to the season which, to that point, had thrilled only his opponents.

Both teams wore uniform patches honoring the Yaroslavl Lokomotive KHL team that perished in a plane crash on Sept. 7 and the jerseys were auctioned off as a fundraiser for the victims' families. Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin who initiated the event for their teams, took the ceremonial opening faceoff, the kind of gesture that more clubs should adopt.

Of course, the Pens  have their own early season sagas, too. The biggest news is that Sidney Crosby has been cleared for contact (which should put Jeremy Roenick's mind at rest; well, maybe not), a development that brings the Penguins' captain one step closer to returning to play for the first time since early January. The Pens started quite well, gaining seven of their first eight possible points, without Crosby -- and, for that matter, Malkin for the last two games and rugged defenseman Brooks Orpik as well.

“It’s the commitment in this room,” Penguins forward Matt Cooke told Tariq El-Bashir of The Washington Post. “We play a certain way no matter who is in the lineup, and that’s the strength of our team. We have a good enough team that if guys can’t play, we can hold the fort.”

The Caps, on the other hand, are relatively healthy -- with the possible exception of goalie Michal Neuvirth -- but underwhelmed while going 2-0. Perhaps that's a silly statement for an undefeated team, but they allowed some bad goals against the Lightning with veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun not playing especially well in his Caps debut. Beyond that, however, Washington's big guns up front had been silent heading into the Penguins game.

The Capitals generally play with panache and they -- more accurately, some of their stars -- haven't panached much. No, that shouldn't matter. Teams aren't ranked on style points in the NHL. But we noticed some lethargy there during the preseason and when Ovechkin especially is below par, the Caps invariably struggle.

Against Tampa Bay on Monday, Ovie went scoreless, and was minus-2 with three shots on goal. He has a lone assist so far, and after last season's scoring drop and his pledges to rebound, that's a bit disappointing. Even his coach thinks so. “I think he’s got a long way to go to get to where he wants to be — to be as good as he should be,” Bruce Boudreau said after the game (video). “He’s our number one player, but he can be better. I mean, there’s no doubt about it.”

Ovechkin missed some practice time prior to the opener because he flew home to Russia for a relative's funeral. Whatever might be affecting the star winger's play, Boudreau was unmoved, saying, "I'm not going to make any excuses for him. He's got to be playing better."

Asked on Wednesday to comment on his coach's remarks, Ovie said (video), "“I think everybody can be better. I think it just has to be between me and him and I don’t want to comment on this."

Well, jeez, it's not between the coach and the player if the coach says it in public, is it? Is this the new, less kind, less gentle Bruce Boudreau?

Ovechkin went on to admit, with a smile, that minus-2 isn't very good. But all he needs is a goal to get going, his line with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble still dominated at points, but they just couldn't finish. That's probably all true, although his trio was hardly consistent and needed a little benching by Boudreau to up its game in the second period. Earlier in his career, Ovie needed no such prodding.

Now, it may not matter how well Ovechkin plays against the Penguins. Pittsburgh just can't defeat the Caps on home ice anyway. After Thursday night's 3-2 win in OT, Washington had won eight straight regular season games in Pittsburgh, going back to Dec. 27, 2007, even though the Pens had recently done a good job keeping Ovechkin off the scoreboard. He scored only one goal against them in four games last season. Two seasons ago, however, Ovechkin scored seven goals and 10 points and was plus-8 in four games against the Pens. On Thursday night, he tallied in the third period for his first goal of the season.

The Caps' goaltending also bears watching. Vokoun was a bargain free-agent signing and was always considered to be a fine goalie stuck playing for an undermanned Florida team. But there's always a suspicion that players who come from losing organizations have absorbed some unfortunate habits and don't fully understand the demands of playing for a club where winning is expected. It can take them a while to adjust.

Vokoun had a rotten preseason. On the other hand, Neuvirth -- who wasn't happy when the Caps anointed Vokoun as their Number 1 upon his signing -- played well and Boudreau rewarded him with the opening night start against Carolina, a 4-3 OT win. It was something of a surprise. However, the 23-year-old Czech came up lame with a lower body injury, perhaps suffered against the Hurricanes, and he didn't make the trip to Pittsburgh. The Capitals recalled Braden Holtby, but Thursday night Vokoun had a chance to redeem himself and made 39 saves in the win.

This game had lots more going for it, not the least of which was the battle between the two teams' top blueliners. Mike Green appears to be back to his old self on defense for Washington while Pittsburgh's Kris Letang's leads the entire NHL in scoring with a goal and five assists. And the Pens' penalty kill was perfect so far on the season, zero goals allowed in 16 shorthanded situations, until Dennis Wideman struck in OT. The Caps power play is 3-for-14. And Cooke, of all people -- once considered the poster boy for bad on-ice behavior who has vowed to change his ways -- ranks second on Pittsburgh in goals with three.

The game was on the NHL Network in the U.S., giving viewers everywhere in the States a chance to see a couple of teams that -- even with a notable absence or two -- are loaded with talented players.  As the man once said, it's better to have and not need than to need and not have. Or something like that.

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