WASHINGTON — The Capitals needed a win Thursday night. And they knew it.
Following a red-hot December that turned their season around, the Capitals had cooled off in January with a 4-6-1 record for the month heading into their game against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. That stretch allowed those very Penguins to tie Washington for the top Wild Card in the East, putting the two teams in the unique position of fighting each other for a playoff spot.
There are still another 10 weeks before the end of the regular season, but Thursday’s game provided the Capitals with the opportunity to get back on track and deal some damage to a team looking to surpass them in the standings. It took 65 minutes of a play and a shootout to do it, but the Capitals managed to battle their way to a win and remain ahead for now.
“It was a huge two points for us,” goaltender Darcy Kuemper said. “That’s not really a secret. We knew how big this game was coming into it. It took us the stretch, but these games feel really good when you get the job done. We played super hard, and we earned it tonight.”
The Capitals held leads of 1-0 and 2-1 in the contest, threatening to win the game in regulation while outshooting Pittsburgh 41-33. They put together a dominant first period in particular, setting a new season-high with 22 shots on goal including a power-play tally by Alex Ovechkin — just the second power-play goal for Washington in 10 games.
However, the Penguins kept finding ways to respond and a goal by right wing Bryan Rust with 7:03 left in regulation sent the game into overtime. With 42 hits exchanged between the two teams and post-whistle skirmishes throughout the night, it was exactly the type of back-and-forth contest the Capitals have come to expect when they play the Penguins.
“It's always these kind of games against Pittsburgh,” center Nicklas Backstrom, who scored the game-winner in the shootout, said. “It's fun games to play because there's a lot of emotion out there. It was actually a great hockey game, I think, overall. We started off really good and they came back in the second. It was a tight game.”
Several players agreed the game was a measuring-stick outing for the Capitals, who had beaten just one team over .500 in their last 13 games. Washington evened the season series 1-1 between the two teams with the final round scheduled for March 25 in Pittsburgh.
In a game where the Capitals dictated the pace and imposed their will physically, there was a lot for them to build on moving forward. While the Penguins trail them in the standings now, they must continue piling up wins having played more games than Pittsburgh or any other team chasing them in the standings.
“They're a good hockey team,” right wing Marcus Johansson said of the Penguins. “It's always fun and special to play against them. So yeah, that was a good game for us and I think this is the way we need to play and just gotta build on it.”