By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributing writer
PITTSBURGH — Even with Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, the Pittsburgh Penguins just can’t get the better of their rival Washington Capitals.
Dennis Wideman ruined Malkin’s big night, scoring the game-winner in a 3-2 overtime victory, which gave the Capitals their eighth win in nine games against the Penguins Thursday night at the Consol Energy Center.
“It’s always disappointing when you lose,” said Penguins’ winger James Neal. “Overall, it was a great team game, but just a little disappointing at the end.”
Malkin, who played after sitting out the past two games with soreness in his surgically repaired knee, assisted on two goals by Neal, including the game-tying goal, which came with 3:45 remaining in regulation.
But the Capitals, who were outshot, 41-19, escaped with the victory, cashing in on their only power-play chance of the game in overtime following a tripping call on Penguins’ center Jordan Staal.
Washington took advantage of the 4-on-3 in the extra session when Wideman beat Penguins’ goaltender Brent Johnson with a wrist shot during a rush up ice. It was the first power play goal allowed by the Pens, who boasted the top-ranked penalty killing unit last season, in 16 chances.
“It’s not fun giving up two points, especially in a game where you dominated,” said Johnson, who got the start against his former team because of an illness to Marc-Andre Fleury.
“We were good in all areas of the ice and it hurts to have a tough call like that late in the game in overtime and give them momentum.”
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t surprised Staal was whistled for the questionable penalty in overtime. Instead, it was his power play that went 0-for-4 and in the midst of an 0-for-15 slump until Neal’s goal.
Not even an Arron Asham knockout blow could jump start the power play midway through the third.
Asham took exception to a hit by Capitals’ center Jay Beagle on Penguins’ defenseman Kris Letang, prompting a fight. Asham ignited the standing-room-only sellout crowd of 18,512, and sent Beagle reeling, knocking him unconscious with a right hand to the mouth.
“I wasn’t going in looking for a fight,” Asham said. “I was going in there and tell him to stop running around, what you’re supposed to do when somebody runs one of your top players.
“It’s unfortunate the way the fight ended. I obviously want to win, but I don’t want to go out there and hurt anybody. My gestures at the end…I was into the game, It was uncalled for and classless on my part.”
The Penguins didn’t register a shot on Beagle’s roughing minor, but tied the game after a holding call later in the third on Troy Brouwer.
Neal, after taking a cross-ice pass from Malkin, snapped a wrist shot behind Capitals’ goaltender Tomas Vokoun to tie the game. Neal has four goals in six games after scoring just two in 27 contests last season.
“It’s not totally a surprise to see James get four goals in this short amount of time,” Bylsma said. “He’s a guy who gets 20-25 a year for numerous years in a row, and now with Malkin, there’s more ice available.”
The Penguins were again without captain Sidney Crosby, who was cleared for contact Thursday morning as he continues to recover from a concussion initially suffered following a blindside hit Jan. 1 during the Winter Classic against the Capitals.
Crosby’s return is uncertain, but the Penguins haven’t missed a beat without their leader, suffering just their first non-shootout loss of the season and grabbing eight points in their first five games.
“We’re going to learn from this game,” Letang said. “But obviously it was one of our best games of the year.”
Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux dropped the ceremonial first puck between Russian-born superstars Malkin and Alex Ovechkin on a night where both teams honored the families of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the KHL team that perished in a plane crash Sept. 7 in Russia.
Malkin, who came up with the idea of a tribute and scored the last Penguins’ goal against the Capitals at the Winter Classic, made his presence felt just 2:27 into the game when he assisted on Neal’s goal.
The goal not only gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead, but also snapped a 2:00:14 goal-less stretch against the Capitals, who registered shutouts in the two previous meetings between the rivals.
“He has great deception and moves the puck so well,” Neal said of Malkin. “I’m happy to play with him.”
The Penguins controlled play in the first, outshooting Washington, 12-3, but still only led by a goal at the intermission.
Mike Knuble tied it 1:20 into the second period, scoring his 12th goal and 16th point in the past 13 regular-season games against the Penguins.
The game remained tied until Ovechkin scored his first of the year early in the third on a deflection from defenseman Mike Green.
Again, the Penguins dominated play in the third, outshooting Washington, 18-3, but couldn’t come up with anything until Neal came through late in the period.
The Capitals however, had the final say against their rival on Wideman’s goal.
“We fought back to tie it up in the third and took it to overtime,” Neal said. “It’s tough, but we played a good game.”
NOTES: The Capitals are 12-1-2 in their last 15 regular season games against the Penguins…Penguins’ forward Chris Kunitz, who signed a two-year extension earlier in the day, recorded his 100th point with the team on Neal’s second goal.
***In addition to his work here at FTP, Dan Scifo is the Assistant Sports Editor for the Latrobe Bulletin.