Patric Hornqvist pounced on a careless clearing attempt and beat Braden Holtby at 2:34 of overtime to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 3–2 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series Wednesday night.
Trevor Daley and Matt Cullen also scored for Pittsburgh. Jay Beagle and John Carlson replied for the Capitals.
With the win, the Pens take a commanding 3–1 series and push the Presidents' Trophy winners to the brink of elimination. The two sides will have an extra day to recover before Game 5 goes Saturday at Verizon Center.
Here are three thoughts on this critical swing game.
This is one the Capitals had to have. Had to. And they just couldn’t take it.
Pittsburgh's best defenseman, Kris Letang, was watching from the press box as he served his one-game suspension. Olli Maatta, another top-four D, was out recovering from an “upper-body injury,” leaving the Caps to face a defense that looked like this:
These were legitimate NHL players, not a bunch of beer leaguers. But on a night when rookie goaltender Matt Murray looked more human than he has at any point in this series, pumping out rebounds and scrambling to cover his angles, it should have been a rout. And early on, it looked like it could be. The Caps got on the board first when Jay Beagle took advantage of a misread by Pouliot and Lovejoy in the neutral zone and broke in untouched before beating Murray with a bad-angle backhand just 2:58 in.
For a brief spell, they were able to employ the dump-and-chase-and-obliterate game plan designed to wear that group out. But they got too aggressive, sending three forwards deep on the forecheck. That created massive gaps for the Pens to exploit in transition, which left the Caps chasing the puck into their own end more often than into the offensive corners.
They made adjustments and managed to get their physical game going in fits and spurts, but never made it as tough on the Pens as they should have. Instead, they fell into the same old bad habits. They went better than eight minutes without a shot in the second. They took too many undisciplined penalties. The big guns - Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom - were held off the score sheet. Again.
But their biggest sin was the absence of a killer instinct. The Penguins were vulnerable and the Caps failed to exploit that. The way a legitimate Cup contender would.
And now a team that has won just two of its past seven games is faced with having to win three straight. Possible? Sure. Likely? Based on what we've seen over the past three games, no. Not even close.
Pittsburgh’s thin blue line
This was everything the Pens could have asked for. They bent but didn’t break. They were opportunistic, a trait that has eluded the Caps all series. They took their early licks, adjusted to Washington’s game plan and traded punches right up until Hornqvist delivered the knockout.
There were plenty of heroes up front—what a night from Cullen, the fourth liner who might have been the best center on the ice for either side Wednesday night—but this game was won by a group of blueliners who elevated their games to meet the challenge.
Daley, a guy who couldn’t crack the lineup in Chicago, played almost 29 minutes of flawless hockey. He set the tone as Letang’s fill-in, using his speed and smarts to exploit the holes in Washington’s coverage and forcing the Caps to spend more time in their own end than anyone would have expected.
Brian Dumoulin was tenacious in his own end and chipped in two assists. Ian Cole. Justin Schultz...these are guys who should be playing third pairing minutes, but they dug deep, chewed up heavy minutes and made their stand, taking 10 of Pittsburgh's 33 shots and limiting the Caps to a handful of decent scoring opportunities of their own.
“I thought they were terrific, the whole group of them,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “It wasn't a perfect game by any stretch, but we're playing against a pretty good opponent and [Letang's] a tough guy to replace.”
Now they have an extra day between games to rest and recuperate, and when they return they’ll have their No. 1 man back in the lineup. They have to like their chances to finish this off in Game 5.
For the first time in the series, the two teams made it through an entire game without an incident requiring the attention of the Department of Player Safety (although some in the Mid-Atlantic area probably took issue with a heavy second period hit by Evgeni Malkin on Daniel Winnik). It was another nasty affair though, with an endless stream of behind-the-play shenanigans and after-the-whistle stick work.
While frustration was understandable in this one, it’s something the Caps will have to get under control for Game 5. As effective as their penalty kill has been (thanks to some aggressive shutdown work from Jay Beagle and Winnik) they can’t continue to give Pittsburgh’s power play chances. That means delivering the right kind of physicality and staying away from the distractions of the cheap stuff.
“This group has dealt with a lot of things," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "I think they’ve handled adversity pretty well all year so they’ll have to do it again. We’ve dug ourselves a hole and see if we can dig ourselves out.”
If they can't, they're facing a long, uncomfortable offseason.