Sunday, January 2, 2011, 12:19 a.m.
By Ryan OHalloran
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PITTSBURGH One thing almost certain about a Penguins home game is that center Sidney Crosby will start, often times with fellow super-star Evgeni Malkin riding shot-gun on one wing.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau didnt care.
No, it didnt matter if Crosby, whose 25-game point-scoring streak ended earlier in the week.
Having to declare his line-up first for Saturday's Winter Classic, Boudreau sent out the defensive pairing of John Carlson, 20 and Karl Alzner, 22.
It was the first of many decisions Boudreau hit on during the Capitals 3-1 win over Pittsburgh before 68,111 soaked fans and a prime-time American national television audience.
Its important those guys play against the top lines and in big games because once we get into the playoffs, they have to play well, fellow rear-guard Mike Green said.
Play well Carlson and Alzner did, helping hold Crosby pointless.
Carlson played a team-high 26 minutes, 28 seconds, Alzner played 24:25 and both players saw nearly four minutes on the penalty kill.
We have to keep our mindset on just doing those little things and it helped us go forward and win, Carlson said. We werent happy losing in a shootout to them at home and we tried to come in here and make a little bit of a statement.
Consider a statement sent in the NHL less than a year at all (Carlson) and as a full-timer (Alzner), they have earned Boudreaus trust.
Hockey is a fickle sport so the significance of the Capitals three wins since the Christmas break may be diminished if they are stymied by new Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson, acquired from the Islanders this weekend. The teams play twice in the next two weeks.
But from an individual standpoint, how CarlsonAlzner (along with goalie Semyon Varlamov) played against an elite offensive team can only mean good things for the second half of the season.
I dont think there are any questions with their confidence level, said center Matt Hendricks, who saw man-short time with the young defensemen. Theyve played against the best teams players a lot lately and theyre so young, theyll just get better and better.
Neither player has the vast experience of facing Crosby for several years (like Green), including a taut seven-game playoff series two years ago. With each match-up against No. 87, they learn more of his nuances.
Mission No. 1 on Saturday: Dont lose sight of him. Crosby remains one of the great garbage-men in the NHL, displaying an inane ability to score from just outside the crease.
Realizing how good he is at getting lost on the ice was key and using the behind-the-net space to escape from where he knew he was, Alzner said. He had that tip-in goal against us in the first meeting and I saw him looking for it a few times tonight.
Crosby could never get out of the blocks offensively. The Penguins power play was 0-for-4, netting only nine shots. The ice conditions didnt help. And he was shaken up late in the second after a collision with David Steckel.
The games tempo was exactly how the Capitals drew it up.
After the Capitals skated on the surface Friday, Boudreau and general manager George McPhee rationalized they would need to grind out a win.
The Capitals stuck to that game plan, especially when Eric Fehr scored the first of his two goals for a 2-1 advantage. Carlson in particular played smart, turning up chances to jump into the play in exchange for a dump in.
A year ago, Carlsons end-to-end rush made him an American hockey hero with his overtime goal to win the World Junior Championships. Now he knows when to pick his spots.
Im still young and still have a lot to learn, he said. Players are too good and you cant take a shift off, a play off and float and drift. Its paying attention all the time and knowing where everybody is on the ice.
The Capitals have won three straight to in-part erase the stench of that miserable eight-game losing streak that was on full display for the HBO cameras. Carlson, for one, said the Capitals are on track again.
It gives us more confidence to play this system that were playing right now, Green said. We struggled with it over the last month and finally coming into our own.
Carlson and Alzner in particular.
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