PITTSBURGH — It was never going to be easy for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night.
Going up against the best team in the NHL without their best player (Sidney Crosby), their best defenseman (Kris Letang) and another 20-goal scorer (Conor Sheary), it was going to take some sort of a Herculean effort to get a win.
They received a couple of them — and some help from the Washington Capitals — to scratch out a 3-2 win to take a 3-1 series lead.
“We’ve been doing it all year,” said Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist, when asked about overcoming the loss of Crosby. “Obviously Sid is a big loss for us and we wanted to get that win for him. We all played really hard. We didn’t play our best game, but we found a way to win and that is all that matters.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan called it a “gritty, gutsy, scrappy game.”
That description would be kind of an understatement. It was another night where the Penguins were badly outshot, outchanced, lost the territorial game and pretty much had to hold on to scratch out a win by any means necessary. In other words, the same thing they have been doing all postseason.
Here is how they did it again on Wednesday.
Marc-Andre Fleury was spectacular — Again
This is pretty much where it all begins and ends for the Penguins right now.
This postseason has been something of a redemption tour for Fleury to this point, perhaps getting one last opportunity with the Penguins before some big decisions have to be made this summer. The team in front of him has not always played well this postseason and has looked nothing like the one that cruised through the playoffs a year ago on its way to a Stanley Cup. In Game 4 the Penguins were outshot by a 38-19 margin and spent most of the last 40 minutes pinned deep in their own defensive zone, unable to do anything other than desperately block shots and chip the puck off the glass while the Capitals came at them in waves.
That scene has played out multiple times over the past three weeks.
If Fleury brings anything less than his A-game in those situations the Penguins are not winners of six of their first eight playoff games.
The Capitals’ top players ‘didn’t step up’
On a night where the Penguins were without several of their top players, the Capitals’ top players were unable to take advantage.
It wasn’t necessarily that the Capitals played poorly (that plus-20 shots on goal advantage was not a fluke), but coach Barry Trotz seemed to think his top players had an even higher level they needed to get to and were unable to do it.
“Our top guys didn’t step up tonight,” said Trotz. “Which was unfortunate. Our top players need to play like top players. They didn’t.”
Alex Ovechkin, who was limited to just two shots on goal and took two of the Capitals’ six minor penalties, pointed the finger at himself and said he has to play much better.
“Obviously, I didn’t play my game at all tonight so I think, me personally, I have to play much better.”
The Capitals took six offensive zone penalties
There were two things that stopped the Capitals’ offense tonight.
The first, as mentioned above, was Marc-Andre Fleury.
The penalty on Oshie, a high-sticking call against Nick Bonino, turned out to be one of the most damaging because it happened with less than two minutes to play in regulation with the Capitals trying to tie the game. Replays showed that Oshie’s stick didn’t really make contact with Bonino’s face, but Oshie still took the blame.
“Tough time to get a penalty. It’s kind of an amateur play by me there,” said Oshie. “I didn’t think I hit him that hard, but I have been on the other side. The natural reaction when you get is your head snaps back a little bit. It’s unfortunate, tough to be in that situation.”
Carlson’s penalty — a roughing call — resulted in Justin Schultz scoring a power play goal mid-way through the second period, just three minutes after the Capitals rallied for two quick goals to tie the game.
Schultz’s goal would end up being the difference in the game.