Gene Collier: A perfect 10 that is perfectly imperfect

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This wasn't what anyone would call a perfect 10, it being neither the Nadia Comaneci nor the Bo Derek of hockey games, but in its way it was breathtaking all the same.

It went from decidedly sloppy to decidedly incredible across three periods against a team the Penguins not only love to beat, but love to torture as well.

"It certainly wasn't pretty," said defenseman Matt Niskanen after firing the winning goal late in the third period of his team's 10th consecutive victory, a 2-1 turning of the screw on the Washington Capitals at Consol Energy Center.

"It was a little sloppy in some areas. It's not gonna be perfect every night. But you can always play good defense. Always gonna give ourselves a chance if we could do that."

Let's start with the slop, shall we?

Just because James Neal had gone four games without pounding a puck into anybody's net, his longest such respite of the hockey season, every last Penguins player still was expecting No. 18 to make that ear-splitting horn blow at any second.

So in spots Tuesday night, that exact anticipation led to preposterous passes, and in fact, both the Penguins and the Capitals spent most of their third and final meeting attempting to complicate what is at its best a pretty simple game.

Why else, for example, would Beau Bennett, flying in unmolested on right wing late in the first period, force a centering pass to Neal in the rush hour traffic of the slot in front of Capitals netminder Braden Holtby?

Because Bennett's a callow rookie and Neal's one of the game's most established forces?

OK we'll accept that.

But why is Capitals center Marcus Johansson passing up a point-blank shot at Marc-Andre Fleury to feed Mathieu Perreault for a hard-angle shot to the left of the cage? Johansson's no rookie, but he is only 22.

OK we'll accept that.

So why is Pascal Dupuis, born before the most recent Pirates World Series appearance, sliding the puck away from an inordinate amount of open ice toward the harried Sidney Crosby -- just to see how much magic the captain was packing in this game?

OK we'll accept that, too.

But between these seemingly ancient rivals, there was a glaring absence of what might be called real clinical hockey until the Penguins just about volunteered to separate themselves from a nine-game winning streak right there in the middle of the third period of a deadlocked hockey game.

That's when Matt Cooke, routinely taking his opportunity at one of Pittsburgh's favorite parts of any ice show -- banging mercilessly into Alex Ovechkin -- measured incorrectly the distance between Ovechkin and the boards near the left corner, meaning the prescribed collision drew a boarding penalty.

Worse, Cooke got tagged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on top of that, which called for four minutes of clinical penalty killing on the part of Dan Bylsma's fellas, a discipline at which these Penguins have been worse at than all but eight teams in the entire NHL this winter.

"I thought our penalty-kill did a great job all game long," Bylsma said. "We had to kill off a couple of them earlier. They got a goal on the one but it was a bad bounce onto Ovechkin's stick.

"But [trying to kill] two minors [against Cooke] is obviously a huge point. They have a very dangerous power play. We had 15 guys step up on that penalty-kill. [Fleury] was tremendous in that sequence. The fans were tremendous in that sequence. As loud as they've been all season. You felt momentum at the end as the puck was going down the ice. As loud as it's been. And [Niskanen] got the goal."

Cooke surged from the penalty box and jumped into a three-on-two break with Niskanen and Crosby. The puck came to Niskanen 35 feet up the slot.

"I was thinking about it before I got it," he said matter-of-factly.

He'll be thinking about it for a long time, as will 18,653 who roared it into the net. But most left Consol Energy Center talking about the kill.

Crosby, Craig Adams, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik took the first shift, with Crosby executing the first of a brilliant blitz of precision clearing efforts. Mark Eaton, Matt Niskanen, Tanner Glass and Dupuis replaced them, with Simon Despres, Deryk Engelland and the clinician Brandon Sutter rotating in to the most electrifying kill of the season.

"You try to roll 'em over, try to keep them fresh," Bylsma said of the changes. "We did a really good job keeping them on the outside and not letting them get set up."

The final Washington gasp hissed off the blade of Ovechkin from the left point with 39 seconds left. Fleury smothered it.

You don't want to look too hard at 10 in a row, even when it's perfectly imperfect.

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Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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