By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)
When the Pens took an awful bench minor with 2 minutes left last night, it seemed like it was the hockey gods trying to even up a game that had been far from even. The Caps outplayed the Pens for most of the night, save for any time Crosby got the puck with any speed in the neutral zone. There's something about Sid against the Capitals that just works, but the cliche view -- that it's because he's motivated to do well against Ovechkin -- is bogus. It's because there's unlimited space on the ice against the Caps; if Crosby can stickhandle over the blueline with control, there's a 90% chance he can pull up and find a trailing defensemen wide open. And it's because the Caps just don't have the personnel to be able to slow down a great player, let alone shut him down.
This win was satisfying for personal reasons -- it's hilarious to beat the Caps, especially in Washington -- but is another discouraging performance at a time when the Pens should be getting better, not worse. I don't want to slam on the bottom 6 (again), because with the acquisitions of Goc and Stempniak, that problem is narrowing. But the focus of it is also sharpening and the magnifying glass, so to speak, is on Tanner Glass and Craig Adams. Even though they each played less than 9 minutes at 5-on-5, they manage to tilt the ice so far in Washington's favor, that by the time they can hurriedly drag themselves off the ice before the Caps attack again, the Pens are already on their heels. They are really good penalty killers, and that's valuable. But they play 5-on-5 hockey like they're killing a penalty. And that's not valuable.
The eye test that the Pens are failing on a nightly basis, however, is not just due to the worst guys on the team. Malkin, Crosby & Co. are too easily pinned in their own zone. Much of this is their own making -- recall the horrible give away by Crosby or Malkin's unfocused dump-in that led to the too many men penalty late -- but much of it is because of the absence of Letang and Martin, the Pens' two best guys at moving the puck. Scuderi, Orpik and Engelland just don't pass well. Seeing it in person is illuminating because you can see the target of the pass (who is often 70 feet away, which is a whole other problem), and how the extra stickhandle these guys take or how putting in the forward's feet screws up the entire breakout. Like Adams and Glass, these guys are really good penalty killers. I just wish someone would tell them when the penalty expires so they can play real 5-on-5 hockey.
A few other thoughts after the jump...
- Lee Stempniak knows what he's doing and doesn't look overwhelmed. He's the first guy since the Dupuis injury to look that way on Sid's wing, and it's a big development. The play on Kunitz's second goal -- tip pass to Crosby, find an open passing lane, get the shot on net -- is relatively simple stuff, except when Sid is moving at warp speed. Crosby has a 14 point lead in the scoring race. It'd be at least 20 if not for the Brian Gibbons Experience.
- Obviously I hate watching Taylor Pyatt skate with Malkin and Neal -- would you want to watch Kevin Federline rap during a Paul McCartney concert? -- but moving Jokinen to play with Sutter is in itself not a bad thing. On a Cup-caliber team, Jokinen is a third liner because that's where he'd be better than his counterpart on the opposition. The problem is that on a Cup-caliber team, Taylor Pyatt is not a second liner. When Bennett comes back, the Pens are going to have to ride their 9 competent forwards (if Bennett is one of them) into the ground. No more than 5 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time for the 4th line. Maybe Sutter can play with Geno and Neal, and the third line can be Goc, Bennett, Jokinen. When no other players are physically in the vicinity of Sutter, he's alright. He'd have more room with Geno or Sid.
- Ovechkin has 9 even strength assists this season. Joe Vitale has 11.
- I still think the Caps are going to make the playoffs, despite their low odds. I always think the Caps are going to make the playoffs. They're one point out of the wild card spot, and who would you trust to keep them out? Columbus? Eh. Detroit? Not close to what they were. The Caps need 22 of the remaining 32 available points to get to 92 points, which is usually the magic number for the playoffs. That's 11 wins in 16 games. Hardly impossible.
- Good game from Jeff Zatkoff. If you throw away his horrible first two games, his save percentage is .926. Small sample size, sure, but that's the same as Tukka Rask.