In a series billed as Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, the supporting cast is taking over for Penguins, Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — The well-traveled defenseman filling in for his team’s most indispensable player scored the first goal. The seemingly ageless center closing in on his 40th birthday scored the second. And the winger who makes a living trying to create space for Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby delivered the overtime winner that brought the Penguins within one victory of a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.

Sure, the stars might be out in the NHL’s marquee playoff matchup. They’re just not the ones shining.

Pittsburgh’s 3-2 thriller over top-seeded Washington in Game 4 on Wednesday night did more than give the Penguins a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. It also highlighted the depth the club has spent months cultivating around Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Trevor Daley skated more than 28 minutes and picked up his first postseason goal in more than two years while serving the ironman role typically filled by Letang, serving a one-game suspension for an illegal hit in Game 3. Matt Cullen, who at 39 has openly wondered if he wants to return in the fall, slipped behind the Washington defense to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead. Patric Hornqvist, who spends most of time suction-cupped to a spot in front of the opposing goaltender, pounced on a loose puck 2:34 into overtime and slammed it by Braden Holtby to end Pittsburgh’s eight-game playoff losing streak in games pushed beyond regulation.

Related: Trevor Daley  is ‘in a good place’ now 

Heady territory for guys considered mere supporting players when the second-ever playoff showdown between Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin began last week.

“I think there’s a great chemistry amongst the team that we have right now,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “To see these guys play as hard as they do for one another as their coaches, it’s a thrill.”

Washington coach Barry Trotz tried to downplay the hype between two of the NHL’s most dynamic players in the run-up to Game 1, stressing there were much more to the longtime rivals than their franchise cornerstones.

Trotz was more right than he knew, only it’s Pittsburgh’s role players who have pushed the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the brink of elimination. Cullen’s two points during the series equal Malkin’s output. Hornqvist has three points through four games, two more than Crosby, though the two-time MVP occupied Holtby’s attention just long enough that the goaltender couldn’t get in proper position to stop the Game 4 winner.

“(Hornqvist) does a lot of the thankless things that help this team be successful,” Sullivan said. “To see him get rewarded in overtime for us is a thrill.”

The Capitals powered their way to the NHL’s best record behind spectacular goaltending from Holtby, a league-leading 50 goals from Ovechkin and a potent power play. All three have taken a significant step back against Pittsburgh. Penguins rookie Matt Murray has been every bit Holtby’s equal, Ovechkin’s 21 shots have produced a single goal and Washington is just 1 for 12 with the man advantage.

Though John Carlson, Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson have tried to pick up the slack, the Capitals are now on the verge of succumbing to an all too familiar result in the spring.

Trotz pointed to Letang’s absence in Game 4 as an opportunity Washington needed to exploit. Instead, Daley patrolled the blue line and quarterbacked the power play in Letang’s stead while Justin Schultz – playing for the first time in more than two weeks – was solid in his return.

“The other guys were good, too,” Backstrom said. “I feel like they’re a good team. It’s not going to be easy.”

Especially playing a club getting contributions from all over, a far cry from the top-heavy roster that relied so heavily – usually too heavily – on Crosby and Malkin for production during recent postseason swoons.

It’s symbolic of the way Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt Pittsburgh since taking over in the summer of 2014 that neither Daley nor Schultz were around when the season began. Then again, they’re hardly alone. Only a handful of players remain from the group that skated off the ice following a Game 7 loss to New York in the second round two years ago, a series the Penguins had led 3-1.

That setback is still fresh in the mind of Crosby and the others who remain. At the same time, most of the guys who surround Crosby in the dressing room won’t carry that baggage into Game 5 on Saturday night in Washington. This is, in many ways, feels like a fresh start filled with fresh faces, even if some are less well-known than others.

“We’ve always found ways to get the job done,” Daley said. “That’s what this team’s been all about. We always found ways to get it done. We started it awhile ago and it’s continuing on.”

 

Just for Men: Sidney Crosby

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People love star athletes because they can do amazing things. Even so, people also often love to see the occasional moment of weakness.

Aside from the occasional injury hiccup, Sidney Crosby‘s been as advertised after being a super-hyped No. 1 overall pick. He has that “Golden Goal,” two Olympic gold medals, a Stanley Cup ring and plenty of individual accolades.

… Yet he can’t really grow much of a beard.

Granted, his facial hair is thicker now that he’s “Sid the star nearing 30” rather than “Sid the Kid,” but no one will confuse him for Brent Burns and his living-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods beard.

For some, especially Crosby-haters, it’s fodder for mockery.

For the rest of us, it’s merely comforting to see that people like Crosby are human and actually have a few flaws.

Sidney Crosby looks hurt (and furious) after Alex Ovechkin slash

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NBCSN screen
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Sidney Crosby is known to get fiery, but even for his feisty standards, he was furious during the third period of Game 4.

An Alex Ovechkin slash caught Crosby on the hand, leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins star shaking his mitt and pleading for a call.

After that, Crosby left to get his hand looked at … but not before flipping out and destroying his stick.

Crosby was able to return not that long after that moment, although we can only speculate regarding how his overall game will be affected if his hand isn’t 100 percent.

VIDEO: Sidney Crosby bests Henrik Lundqvist for goal of the week

Sidney Crosby leads our Goals of the Week feature after beating Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist to give the Penguins the win in New York.

Sidney Crosby leads Penguins over the Hurricanes

Sidney Crosby, Ron Hainsey, Eddie Lack
AP Photo
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PITTSBURGH (AP) Matt Murray‘s steadiness in the face of adversity is one of the reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins made the precocious 21-year-old the primary backup goaltender behind Marc-Andre Fleury.

Surrendering two goals to Carolina in the opening five minutes Thursday night, Murray could have panicked. He didn’t. Of course, having Sidney Crosby around helps.

Murray shut the door over the final 55 minutes and Crosby collected a pair of highlight-reel goals as the Penguins pushed their winning streak to four by rallying for a 4-2 victory.

“You give up two goals early in a game like that, a lot of time with young goalies that can rattle him,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “And he has a maturity about him beyond his years. He has a calm demeanor and he doesn’t get rattled.”

Murray finished with 31 saves, including a sliding stop to break up a two-on-none midway through the first period that seemed to give his teammate the boost they needed.

Crosby beat Eddie Lack with a slick backhander in the first to cut the deficit in half and added a redirect from his knees in the second to give the Penguins the lead as Pittsburgh strengthened its grip on seventh in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

“I think the way the team responded, the way Sid responded (helped),” defenseman Ian Cole said. “And kudos to our team being able to grab the second half of that first period and not wait for intermission for coach to come yell at us. We realized it wasn’t the start we wanted and then were able to turn the tide and turn the momentum as quickly as possible.”

Cole finished with two assists. Phil Kessel had a goal and an assist and Nick Bonino picked up his fifth of the year for Pittsburgh. The Penguins improved to 12-3-1 in their last 16 games against Metropolitan Division opponents.

Phillip Di Giuseppe and Riley Nash scored for the Hurricanes. Lack made 44 stops for Carolina, whose postseason hopes took a significant hit after letting an early two-goal lead get away. The Hurricanes are winless in their last three and sit six points behind Detroit in the race for the final wild-card spot.

“We weren’t as competitive in the pace of the game,” Carolina coach Bill Peters said. “It seemed like we struggled with the pace of the game at times.”

With a trip across the state to take on surging Philadelphia awaiting on Saturday, Sullivan opted to rest Fleury and give the start to Murray, who hadn’t played since March 6. The wispy rookie received little help from his teammates in the opening minutes.

Di Giuseppe took advantage of a turnover by Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz to float a shot between Murray’s legs 42 seconds into the game and Nash doubled it less than five minutes later when Jeff Skinner set up behind the net and hit Nash in the slot. Nash’s wrist shot zipped by Murray’s right leg and the Penguins appeared in serious trouble.

Crosby, as he’s done repeatedly since Sullivan took over in mid-December, led the comeback. He pulled Pittsburgh within one 13:43 into the first by forcing a turnover high in the Carolina zone and darting toward the Hurricane net, deking to his backhand to reach the 30-goal plateau for the seventh time in his career.

Kessel tied it just past the game’s midway point by tapping a feed from Carl Hagelin into the wide-open net. Crosby went to his knees to put the Penguins in front, dropping to the ice to turn a cross-ice pass from Ian Cole into a pretty deflection that Lack couldn’t handle.

Bonino, filling in as the center on the second line while Evgeni Malkin deals with an upper-body injury that will have him out until late-April at the earliest, gave the Penguins more than enough cushion at the end of a nifty sequence in the third that saw Hagelin pass it off the end boards behind the Carolina net to Kessel, who slipped it to Bonino at the far post.

“When we get that line going offensively, we’re harder to play against,” Sullivan said. “We can’t rely on the same people to score every night.”

NOTES: Both teams struggled on the power play. The Hurricanes were 0 for 5, the Penguins 0 for 3. … The Penguins wore their third jerseys featuring Pittsburgh gold along with a commemorative patch to honor the city’s bicentennial. Pittsburgh was officially incorporated on March 18, 1816. Former Penguins Ken Schinkel and Duane Rupp joined mayor Bill Peduto for the ceremonial puck drop. … Carolina visits Minnesota on Saturday.