Vrana’s tally stood as the game-winner as the Capitals (7-4-3) beat Pittsburgh for the first time in four meetings. The win also pushed Washington ahead of the Penguins (7-6-1) in the Eastern Division.
“Every guy on the bench and definitely every guy on the ice . . . gave ‘O’ a little shout out there and told him that was all him,” Oshie said of Vrana’s goal, referring to the Capitals’ captain. “That moment in the game, a goal the other way would be pretty devastating, especially with four losses in a row and your captain goes out and makes every stride. He found a way to will himself up there, dive and make a play.”
The Capitals also saw improvement from their young goaltender, rookie Vitek Vanecek, who stopped 26 of 27 shots and shut the Penguins out for more than 55 minutes. Washington allowed fewer than three goals for the first time in seven games.
The team’s intent to keep sustained pressure in the Pittsburgh zone manifested itself in 42 shots — including 33 in the first two periods. The shot total and differential (15) were both season highs. Oshie said he thought Tuesday’s game was the was the team’s “most complete” game of the season.
“It’s something to build off,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s just a step in the right direction. We’ve got tough games coming up, but I think at this point what you’re trying to do is just build that on the ice, that identity and not focus so much on the results. Tonight it happened the results followed.”
Winger Conor Sheary opened the scoring against his former team at 4:52 of the second period. His shot over the shoulder of Jarry was his third goal. The play was created by a nifty corner move by Nick Jensen in his own zone, winning the puck battle in the corner before dishing it to Richard Panik who pushed it up to Sheary. Panik recorded two assists, his fourth multi-point game for the Capitals.
Pittsburgh went hunting for the equalizer but Vanecek held his ground and made a stop on Chris Tanev on a shorthanded breakaway five minutes later.
Vrana’s strike, his second in as many games and his fifth of the season, came at the 11:31 mark and put the Capitals in control. Lars Eller, who led the team with seven shots on goal, scored his second of the season 1:09 into the third period to give Washington a three-goal advantage. Eller’s tally was a strong end of the night for the third line, which carried the team Tuesday.
“Those guys were horses tonight,” Oshie said. “[Sheary] with his efforts and his strides. [Panik] over there is a thoroughbred and Lars is a horse and a moose coming through there in the middle. They were making plays, not only winning battles but they were moving the puck well and set a good example of how we can play.”
Zach Aston-Reese scored Pittsburgh’s only goal of the night with 4:55 left in the third period to close out the scoring.
Vanecek made his 11th straight start and before Aston-Reese’s shot, had stopped all 24 shots on goal he faced, with some help from the post.
“Yeah, I mean I never get too many games in a row like that,” Vanecek said. “It is something new and I am learning you know? It’s new experience and I feel like I can play every game right now and physically it is good. The start of the season was really hard. I didn’t play eight months. Now you get the shape and it is much better.”
Before Tuesday’s game, Vanecek had given up three or more goals in nine of his past 10 starts. Despite his poor run of form, Laviolette said before the game he was confident in Vanecek.
If Washington were to look elsewhere in net, the options behind Vanecek are limited.
As of Tuesday, goaltender Ilya Samsonov is still in Hershey, Pa., with the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, after being removed from the NHL’s covid-19 list with Evgeny Kuznetsov last Monday.
Because he was away from the ice for so long after testing positive for the virus, the team wanted Samsonov to play in the AHL before returning. There is no timeline for the young Russian netminder to return to the Capitals’ active roster. With Samsonov in Hershey, Vanecek’s only backup option at the moment is 39-year-old Craig Anderson.
Anderson has yet to make a start in net for the Capitals. His one appearance came on Feb. 7 in the Capitals’ 7-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I mean it is not fun losing,” Vanecek said. “It is fun winning. I was just so focusing you know, focusing every time and trying to do the best for the team and they help me really a lot today and we won, that is a good thing.”