How the Penguins held on to steal Game 4 against the Capitals

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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 second was the Capitals themselves as they were whistled for six — six! — offensive zone penalties. Two by Ovechkin and one each by Tom Wilson, John Carlson, Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie.

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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.