Who needs Sidney Crosby? Not the Pens. They beat the Caps without him defeating hockey’s biggest chokers 3-2 to take Game 4 and go up 3-1 in the Metropolitan Division Final series.
Marc-Andre Fleury was again the story stopping 36 of 38 shots sent his way. He’s continued to outplay a listless Braden Holtby, who allowed three goals on 18 shots. It’s been the steady play of the 32-year old Fleury who backstopped the Pens to a Stanley Cup in 2009 that’s been the difference. He’s made all the big saves while Holtby hasn’t.
If it is indeed Fleury’s last run with Pittsburgh, he’s going out in style. In all three Pens wins against the Caps, they’ve been outshot by a lot. You can make the argument that Washington could be at least tied if they got better goaltending. They haven’t nor have they gotten an inspired performance from Alexander Ovechkin. The Great Eight was MIA tonight. It was his worst game of the playoffs. Two days after his controversial slash to Crosby which put him in a prone position for Matt Niskanen’s cross check which concussed the Pens captain, the Caps’ leader only had two shots and took two undisciplined penalties.
Trailing by a goal in a big third, Ovechkin was nowhere to be found. Neither were line-mates Nicklas Backstrom or T.J. Oshie. Something that didn’t sit well with Washington coach Barry Trotz, who called out his best players afterwards. Oshie had an assist but got nabbed for a phantom high-sticking penalty with under two minutes left which Nick Bonino sold. Backstrom didn’t have a shot while Oshie had only two. That’s four total shots for the Caps’ top line. Not enough.
The Pens made the most of their chances. In a scoreless game, Patric Hornqvist got behind Caps D pair Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner to beat Holtby on a breakaway at 4:39 of the first period. Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta led him with a perfect pass. It was the only goal in the first 20 minutes with Fleury stopping all 12 shots sent his way. Holtby turned aside eight of nine.
From that point, the Caps held a 26-9 advantage in shots the final two periods. But they fell behind a pair when Pens rookie Jake Guentzel continued his amazing run by having the good fortune of having a shot go right off Washington’s Dmitry Orlov’s skate and in for a 2-0 lead at 3:51 of the second. It was his eighth goal of the playoffs.
That’s when Washington woke up from its malaise. Showing more urgency, they tilted the ice. The end result was scoring two goals in a span of 1:12 to tie it at two. First, Justin Williams made a great backhand feed across to set up Evgeny Kuznetsov for his fourth of the postseason. A wire of a wrist shot past Fleury at 7:21. Marcus Johansson started it with a key secondary assist.
Then off some sustained pressure, Washington defenseman Nate Schmidt’s one-timer off a Oshie feed beat Fleury high glove to tie the score. Kevin Shattenkirk drew the secondary helper.
Just like that, the game was tied. The Caps had all the momentum when John Carlson took an undisciplined minor penalty for roughing. Sure enough, the opportunistic Pens made him pay. It was Evgeni Malkin who drew plenty of attention. The Caps weren’t gonna allow him to get his lethal shot off from the circle. Instead, Malkin patiently waited before finding an open Justin Schultz at the point for a one-time blast high to the stick side past a crouching Holtby with 8:36 left to give the Pens a 3-2 lead. It was Schultz’ second goal in as many games.
That was the extent of the Pens’ offense. The rest was just defend and depend on Fleury. He was awfully good turning aside 15 of 17 second period shots. One highlight included a two pad stack job to plenty of cheers from the home crowd.
There was also some rough stuff. As expected between two rivals following Game 3, you had players exchanging pleasantries. There was Caps’ pest Tom Wilson almost going knee on knee with Chris Kunitz, who is no stranger to mixing it up. As play continued, Kunitz went after Wilson with the two going off during a scrum in which Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole got called for closing his hand on the puck. But the Caps didn’t get enough good looks on the power play. Instead, they wasted it with Shattenkirk firing a deflected shot over the net.
They were given another golden opportunity when Matt Cullen went off for high-sticking Williams, drawing blood. That meant a four-minute power play. The Pens killed off the first half to end the period with the lead. At the start of the third, it was again a focused Pittsburgh who out-executed Washington’s power play which may as well have been related to the Rangers. That’s how poorly they failed misfiring in four chances. The Pens went 1-for-5 with the one Schultz’ game-winner.
In defensive mode, the Pens sacrificed their bodies to get the win. Under coach Mike Sullivan who was a top assistant of John Tortorella with the Rangers, Pittsburgh played a similar style in the third. They blocked shots and made it tough on the Caps. Even though they got nine shots through on Fleury, they never gave any indication they could tie it.
As a team, the Pens blocked 24 shots and let Fleury see the other nine. They protected the lead by flustering the Caps. One such shift saw Phil Kessel forecheck by outmaneuvering Backstrom along the boards before dumping the puck behind the Caps net to kill off precious time.
Then came the fake out by Bonino. Oshie got his stick up on him. Initially, it looked like the right call. But NBC replays clearly showed that Oshie’s stick only contacted Bonino’s chest. The veteran pulled a move Crosby’s done before as well as other players. He moved his head up and got the call. That severely hurt the Caps’ chances.
They still were able to pull Holtby and get an offensive draw following an icing with 36 seconds remaining. But the Pens killed off the time to preserve the one-goal win and go up 3-1 in the second round series rematch.
When the buzzer sounded, the Caps didn’t engage the Pens. Instead, they went quietly skating off. There was no message sent. Their body language read like a defeated team. You wonder if psychologically, they believe they can come back. Even with Crosby’s status uncertain along with Conor Sheary with each having concussions, it looks like the Pens are in their heads. Fleury is a big reason why. He’s been spectacular.
The one Cap with experience coming back is Williams. He won’t be intimidated. He has won with the Kings twice and once with the Hurricanes. He was part of that Kings team that came back from a 3-0 deficit to stun the Sharks. His experience can help. But what about the rest of a fragile team that’s never been past the second round? Are they beaten?
They’ll have the benefit of an extra day off to prepare for a do or die Game 5 on Saturday. They can either go quietly or pull off what the ’14-15 Rangers did to them in the same round. Either be labeled playoff chokers or show some character for a change and fight back. It’s their choice.
In the other game, it’s the Ducks led by a gigantic second period from who else but Ryan Getzlaf (2 goals, assist) leading Connor McDavid and the Oilers 3-2 with five and a half minutes left. If Anaheim holds on, they tie the series, meaning all four games would be won by the road team. Edmonton needs it more.