"He was pretty good." Coach Bruce Boudreau stating the obvious about his goalie.
The Washington Capitals are starting to serve notice.
In front of another national television audience, the team that was the highest scoring squad in the league last season showed their new commitment to playing a more defensively sound game.
For the third time on a now-concluded five-game road trip, the Caps secured a victory in a one-goal game by shutting out their arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins (or what's left of them), 1-0, before a large, but not capacity crowd at Consol Energy Center.
Washington improves to 10-0-2 in the last 12 regular season games against Pittsburgh, winners of their last seven games in the Steel City.
The win gives the Caps 74 points, good for a five point lead over Montreal for fifth in the Eastern Conference, and trail Tampa Bay by just one point for the Southeast Division lead, though the Lightning have two games in hand over the Caps.
These six points -- on a very difficult road trip -- were crucial for the Caps, as Tampa Bay's 12-game homestand draws to a close. If the Caps have any chance of defending their division crown, they needed to produce on the road while Tampa struggles, losers of four of their last seven and three in a row -- all at home.
Michal Neuvirth, who was maligned by Penguins coach Dan Bylsma on the HBO program 24/7, showed once again the promise this 22-year old goaltender has when he's confident. Neuvirth let up very few rebounds, especially on long shots where Pittsburgh was looking to storm the net looking for change. He made a total of 39 saves, 14 in the tense third period.
It was Neuvirth's second consecutive shut out over the Penguins, his third this season overall.
Coach Bruce Boudreau was asked when he felt confident with Neuvirth in net last night. "Early in the game, when they were coming at us really hard, and [Neuvirth] wasn't allowing any rebounds -- when he can corral them and smothers them like he's got velcro on him -- that's when I know Michal's on top of his game."
As is usually the case, Washington was led offensively by Alex Ovechkin, who notched his 24th goal of the season. But perhaps more importantly, the Caps leader in "heart" last night was Matt Bradley, who played his best game of the season.
Bradley's mission, from his first shift, was to punish Penguins winger Matt Cooke, and he did his job in no uncertain terms. In the teams' last meeting, Super Bowl Sunday, Cooke took a run at Ovechkin, landing a dangerous knee-on-knee hit, which stunned the Russian Machine, leading to both Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom getting shots in at Cooke.
After serving his penalty, Cooke was challenged by Bradley and Cooke declined, as is his nature.
But last night, Bradley would not take "no" for an answer. In the first period, the scrappy winger delivered a cross-check to Cooke's lower back, knocking the pest to the ice. In the second period, of an increasingly gritty game, Bradley delivered a big blow to Cooke, who had his head down in the corner after digging out a puck.
Bradley was called for a charge on a play both Versus Network studio commentators, Keith Jones and Mike Milbury, called clean.
Bradley later threw hands with Penguins rookie Ryan Craig, as Craig felt the need to defend Cooke's honor, as Cooke wasn't man enough to do the job himself.
Boudreau praised Bradley's performance. "I thought he had a tremendous game. He did things that energy guys on the fourth line are supposed to do."
"He did great things out there."
The fight came a few minutes after Bruce Boudreau called time out early in the second, with his team looking a little haggard in their own end to start the frame. It was perfect timing from a coach that has received much criticism this season as he implements a more defensively responsible system.
There have been a lot of growing pains, and it's certainly debatable whether the system change was really necessary in the first place. For all the talk about "playoff hockey", three of the final four teams in last season's playoffs were in the Top 8 in the league in scoring last season.
But Boudreau and GM George McPhee obviously think that the changes are required to succeed this season, and the Caps players are starting to look like they've adjusted to the system. Twice in the third period, milking a 1-0 lead, Capitals forwards were in their own crease blocking and covering pucks, including Ovechkin and Backstrom.
The Capitals management is staking their reputation -- and perhaps their playoff chances -- on the change in philosophy. Whether they can generate enough offense while maintaining their defensive presence is still up for debate.
If McPhee can pull a second-line center out of his hat at the trade deadline, it would go a long way in taking the pressure off the first line and allow Marcus Johansson -- who made a terrific pass on Ovechkin's goal, but also was pushed off the puck too many times to mention in tight quarters -- to center the third line where he can be more effective on defense without having the added pressure of centering a scoring line right now.
Regardless, get used to these one-goal games. It's "playoff hockey" from here on out.
NEXT GAME: The Caps are off until Friday, when they host the struggling New York Rangers (2-7-1 in their last 10 games) at 7:00 pm from Verizon Center.
CAPS NEWS NETWORK THREE STARS
3. Alex Ovechkin. His goal was an absolute BOMB from the high slot, and a power play marker to boot!
2. Matt Bradley. Did the hero's work.
1. Michal Neuvirth. Didn't need to be spectacular last night, but that's part of his game -- always being in the right spot. Held onto all the long shots, controlled what few rebounds there were, and made a couple nifty grabs with the glove.
***Post-game quotes courtesy Caps365 on capitals.nhl.com.