PITTSBURGH (AP) Mike Sullivan knows his team is ”wired” for offense, as tends to happen when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and – increasingly – Jake Guentzel on your roster.
Yet the Pittsburgh Penguins have proven during their two-year run atop the NHL they know what they’re doing at the other end of the ice, too, playing with a discipline that’s more grit than glamour.
Their hopes for a historic three-peat remain alive because of it.
Guentzel scored twice and the Penguins held Washington star Alex Ovechkin without a shot on goal for just the third time in 107 career playoff games to grind out a 3-1 victory in Game 4 on Thursday night to even their typically taut Eastern Conference semifinal.
Pittsburgh held Washington to three shots total in the third period.
”It’s like we played Game 7 tonight,” said Malkin, who scored from his belly late in the second period to put Pittsburgh in front to stay. ”Unbelievable.”
Well. Not exactly.
This is what tends to happen when the two longtime rivals meet in the postseason. Washington edges ahead and the Penguins respond immediately, one of the main reasons Pittsburgh is 9-1 all-time against the Capitals in the playoffs.
Plenty of work remains to be done for Washington to shrug off the weight of its ignominious history and for the Penguins to push their bid for a three-peat to the next round. Yet Pittsburgh laid down the blueprint over three periods that were decidedly tamer than the Game 3 chaos caused in large part by Washington forward Tom Wilson’s illegal high hit that left rookie Zach Aston-Reese with a broken jaw and led the league to suspend Wilson for three games.
While Sullivan downplayed the impact of Wilson’s absence, the pushing and shoving was largely kept to a minimum save for a scrap between Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang and Washington’s T.J. Oshie as Guentzel skated down the ice to flip in an empty-net goal with 58 seconds to go.
For the Penguins, the stakes – as they so often have during Sullivan’s tenure – far outweighed any search for retribution.
”We understood it’s a huge game for us,” Malkin said.
Instead the teams head to Washington for Game 5 on Saturday night all tied up, the ninth time in 11 postseason meetings the series will go at least six games. Same as it ever was.
Oshie scored Washington’s lone goal – a shot from the slot on the power play 12:55 into the second that knotted the score at 1 – and Braden Holtby finished with 21 saves but the Capitals couldn’t sneak anything else by Murray, who stopped 20 shots just two days after putting together an admittedly ”shaky” performance in Game 3.
The guys in front of Murray made his job relatively easy. The Penguins blocked 13 shots and rarely let Washington put together any sustained pressure.
Devante Smith-Pelly replaced Wilson on the top line with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, but Pittsburgh kept the clamps on. Ovechkin failed to put a single puck on net, though Washington coach Barry Trotz downplayed Ovechkin’s ineffectiveness.
”Trust me, Ovie will get his shots,” Trotz said.
He’s going to have to if he wants to keep pace with Guentzel. A year after scoring a playoff-high 13 goals while helping the Penguins to a second consecutive Cup, the slender 23-year-old is once again thriving in May.
Guentzel gave the Penguins the lead 9:21 into the second period when he stood on the doorstep and banged home a rebound of Dominik Simon’s shot for his ninth of the playoffs and his 20th point of the postseason. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in 1988 are the last two players to reach 20 points in 10 or fewer postseason games.
”I just kind of feel like the (pucks) are going in right now,” Guentzel said.
Guentzel has a league-leading 10 playoff goals, joining Mario Lemieux as the only NHL players to reach double digits in their first two career postseasons.
The 23-year-old, however, is still learning. He committed a slashing penalty after putting the Penguins in front, and Oshie’s shot from the slot 12:55 into the second tied it.
Malkin went to his belly to put Pittsburgh back in front with 2:33 to go in the second. The Russian star flung himself at the puck during a scrum in the crease, the puck just flitting over the goal line following a scramble. There was no initial goal call on the play, reminiscent of a sequence in Game 2 in which the red goal light remained unlit after Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist jabbed at it from in front.
Replays in Game 2 proved inconclusive and the Capitals held on. This time, the review was kinder to the Penguins. Video clearly showed the puck inching across the line, and it stood after the Capitals challenged claiming goalie interference.
”It’s a good goal, we’re happy,” Malkin said. ”Sometimes it’s a bad call against us. Sometimes it’s a good call. But we’re looking at the next game. We understand it’s not over.”
NOTES: Crosby also failed to get a shot on goal but had two assists. … Pittsburgh F Carl Hagelin played 16:11 while wearing a full face shield in his return from an upper-body injury that forced him to miss the first three games of the series. … The Capitals have scored a playoff goal in nine of 10 playoff games. … The loss was Washington’s first on the road in the playoffs (4-1). … The Capitals were 1 for 3 on the power play. The Penguins were 2 for 4.
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