By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributing Writer
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins just didn’t have that offensive punch Monday night against the Washington Capitals. But they will receive help in the scoring department as soon as today.
Washington defeated Pittsburgh, 1-0, Monday night at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, but optimism surrounded the injury-riddled Penguins’ locker room after news broke earlier in the day that the team acquired promising forward James Neal and young, puck-moving defenseman Matt Niskanen from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Penguins’ defenseman Alex Goligoski.
“James Neal’s name didn’t come up last week,” Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s been on our radar for a long time and a guy we’ve talked about.”
The Penguins’ crop of forwards have been ravaged by injury, none bigger than captain Sidney Crosby, who hasn’t played since Jan. 5 with a concussion, and superstar center Evgeni Malkin — out for the season with a knee injury.
Neal, a 20-goal scorer in all three NHL seasons, was described as a physical, overpowering force in the offensive zone with a steady shot.
“This is a guy we’ve targeted,” Bylsma said. “He looks like he could get 30-plus, 35 (goals).
“We think he has some work to finish off his game, to be that power forward, but we think he can be that.”
Bylsma described Niskanen as a smooth-skating defenseman, who has the opportunity to move into Goligoski’s No. 5 spot and see time on the power play.
The deal was bittersweet for Bylsma, who has watched Goligoski progress through the Penguins’ minor league system into one of the team’s top six defensemen.
“When I talked to Alex today, I told him I’ll always be watching how he does and where he goes because I’ve grown up with him a little bit,” Bylsma said.
Still, the emergence of Kris Letang, and the surplus of talent along the Penguins’ blueline made the deal easier to take.
“That makes this one a little more palpable,” Bylsma said. “We knew this year, or next year at some point, we would have to make a decision on our defense.”
That decision came Monday afternoon and the Penguins were happy to have the help.
“Obviously, Alex is a big part of our team, but we’re going to get a 30-to-35-goal scorer,” Penguins’ forward Max Talbot said. “He’s been a force in the league and we’re excited to have him.”
Penguins’ defenseman Zbynek Michalek played against Neal and Niskanen as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes.
“They’re definitely going to help our team,” Michalek said. “It was kind of a shock when we found out about the team because (Goligoski) was a great player and we’re all going to miss him.
“But you have to give up a good player in order to get a good one.”
The Penguins, who were shut out for the fourth time without Crosby in the lineup, haven’t scored against Washington in 157:47 — Malkin’s tally in the Winter Classic being the last goal against. It was the seventh game Pittsburgh, which is 2-5-1 in its last eight, scored one goal or less.
“It’s frustrating but I think at the same time we can be proud of the way we played,” Michalek said. “Hopefully we can build on this because if we can keep playing like this we’re going to win some games.”
The Penguins got plenty of shots, but nothing to show for it as Capitals’ goaltender Michal Neuvirth turned aside all 39 shots faced for his second straight shutout against Pittsburgh.
In addition to frequent net-mouth scrambles, defenseman Deryk Engelland and forward Brett Sterling both hit posts and Talbot’s stick was lifted by Capitals’ defenseman John Carlson to prevent a quality chance on a partial breakaway in the third.
“I think we were the better team for most of the game,” Michalek said. “We hit a couple posts, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Pittsburgh put 18 pucks on net in the first period and 14 more in the third, to own a lopsided 39-24 advantage in shots, but Neuvirth didn’t allow the Penguins many second-chance opportunities.
“We created a lot of chances and opportunities, but their goalie did a pretty good job of keeping us from rebounds,” Penguins’ center Jordan Staal said.
Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was also sharp; stopping 23 of 24 shots, but Capitals’ superstar Alex Ovechkin tallied the lone goal of the game late in the second period.
Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead just moments after Neuvirth stopped Staal on a short-handed breakaway. Capitals’ forward Marcus Johansson gloved the puck out of the air out near the blueline and dropped it to Ovechkin, who rocketed the puck past Fleury.
“We’re not going to worry too much about the outcome when we know that is exactly the way we have to play,” Bylsma said. “We worked hard to play that way and we’re going to keep playing that way.”
The Capitals have dominated the Penguins during the regular season with Pittsburgh’s lone win in four games coming during a shootout victory in Washington.
The two teams met in Pittsburgh for the first time since Washington’s 3-1 victory at the Winter Classic. Monday’s game was still nationally-televised on Versus, but it lacked the regular sizzle of a Penguins-Capitals matchup with Crosby still out of the lineup, nursing a concussion.
Still, there were plenty of fireworks, particularly in the second period when Washington’s Matt Bradley was assessed a charging penalty after elbowing Penguins’ agitator Matt Cooke, who laid a controversial hit on Ovechkin the last time the two teams met. That prompted Staal to tackle Bradley, resulting in coincidental minors for both.
Later in the period, Bradley and Penguins’ forward Ryan Craig were assessed major penalties for fighting.
Fleury didn’t see much work in the opening period as the Penguins at one point held a 12-2 advantage in shots. But his biggest save came midway through the first when he denied Ovechkin on a breakaway. He also made an acrobatic glove save on Ovechkin midway through the second period. Ovechkin got the better of Fleury, however, late in the second with the game’s only goal.
“We controlled just about every aspect of the game,” Penguins’ forward Craig Adams said. “We just couldn’t find a way to put the puck in the net.”
***In addition to his work here at FTP, Dan Scifo is also the Assistant Sports Editor for the Latrobe Bulletin.