Sunday, February 6, 2011, 4:12 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
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The Washington Capitals may face no greater test this season -- pre-playoffs, that is -- than two games in 41 hours against the team currently leading their division and the team that has haunted them for decades.
And the Capitals couldn't have passed each test in more convincing fashion.
Friday night's complete victory at Tampa Bay set the tone. Sunday afternoon's 3-0 shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins was the emphatic stamp to as successful a weekend as Bruce Boudreau could have dreamed.
"It tells me we can play when we want to," a jubilant coach said. "We're not the destitute team everyone thinks we are once a week."
The Caps didn't look anything like the shaky squad seemingly teetering on the brink in the Eastern Conference playoff race less than one week ago. Instead, they seized control of back-to-back games against top competition and never let them go.
Sunday's victory wasn't as aesthetically pleasing as Friday's 5-2 triumph over the Lightning, but it was no less impressive for a Capitals team that was without Semyon Varlamov in net and Mike Green on the blue line for the final two periods.
Varlamov came down with some type of illness Saturday night, so goaltending coach Arturs Irbe called Michal Neuvirth and informed the No. 2 net-minder he was likely to get the start. Neuvirth hadn't started since January 18 in Philadelphia, but he responded with 22 saves en route to his second career shutout.
He did this to a Penguins team coached by Dan Bylsma, who noted in one episode of HBO's "247 Road to the Winter Classic" that Neuvirth looked "shaky" the last time he played Pittsburgh.
"Before the game, I remembered when he said that," Neuvirth said. "I kind of looked at him during the warm-up and told myself that I've got to shut these guys out tonight."
Neuvirth got plenty of help from his depleted defensemen, who lost Green when he took a Brooks Orpik slapshot to the right ear at the end of the first period. Green never returned to the bench, though he was in the locker room after the game and expressed hope he'll be back on the ice within days.
Down to only five players, the Caps defensive unit clamped down and turned in a yeoman's performance, blocking a number of shots that never made it to Neuvirth.
"It's all about commitment," Boudreau said. "It's a commitment to wining. You block shots, one of your teammates goes down, another one picks it up."
A sluggish first period turned in the Capitals' favor when Brooks Laich picked up a rebound in front of the crease and pushed it through Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's legs to put the home team up 1-0. A short-handed goal by Marcus Johansson less than four minutes into the second period made it 2-0 and put the Caps in a position of comfort.
They haven't always taken advantage of those situations in recent weeks; on Tuesday, they blew a 2-0 lead to the New York Rangers. But they managed to sustain momentum Friday night in Tampa, and they did it again Sunday, never giving the Penguins hope.
"It's nice to win a game convincingly," Laich said. "I thought our team Friday night did a great job controlling the game and managing the game. It didn't look like we were ever on our heels. And tonight it was the same thing. We got a goal early and we were able to settle into our gameplan."
By the third period, all that remained were opportunities for both sides to settle some scores. Penguins winger Tim Wallace got David Steckel to engage in a fight midway through the period, perhaps making some players on the Pittsburgh bench feel better since Steckel delivered one of the hits (inadvertent) that knocked star Sidney Crosby out more than a month with a concussion.
Later, noted pest Matt Cooke took out Alex Ovechkin with an apparent knee-on-knee hit. Ovechkin and teammate Nicklas Backstrom immediately went after Cooke, but the potential fracas broke up quickly without any serious incident.
Not that the Caps were happy about it afterward.
"It was Matt Cooke. Need we say more?" Boudreau said. "It's not like it's his first rodeo. He's done it to everybody, and then he goes to the ref and says, 'What did I do?' He knows damn well what he did. There's no doubt in my mind that he's good at it, and he knows how to do it. He knows how to pick this stuff. We as a league still buy into this that, 'Oh, it was an accidental thing.'"
Just add another chapter to one of hockey's best rivalries, one that tilted in the Capitals' favor on Sunday but surely will be revisited again.
"They don't like us. We don't like them," Boudreau said. "That's the way it should be."