The Pittsburgh Penguins keep on proving the time-worn adage that it isn't how you start, but how you finish.
The NHL's best team over the regular season's final month enters Saturday night's Game 5 of its Eastern Conference semifinal with a chance to send yet another promising Washington Capitals' campaign to a bitter playoff ending.
A matchup between the Presidents' Trophy winners and the league's hottest team down the stretch has so far gone in favor of the latter. The Penguins have registered three straight one-goal victories following a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1 to put Washington on the brink of elimination as the series shifts back to Verizon Center.
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Pittsburgh has moved a big step closer to its first Stanley Cup final since 2009 with consecutive 3-2 wins, with rookie Matt Murray's 47 saves the difference in Monday's Game 3 and Patric Hornqvist playing the hero Wednesday by scoring 2:43 into overtime.
Despite an 0-for-14 showing on the power play and being outshot in each of the last two matchups, the Penguins hold a 3-1 series advantage by making the most of their even-strength opportunities and the 21-year-old Murray outplaying Vezina Trophy favorite Braden Holtby.
“They're a good defensive team and it's the playoffs, it's hard to get scoring chances,” Hornqvist said. “But when we get them, we score, and that's part of why we win the game.”
Pittsburgh's season-long resiliency continues to show up as well. Murray is 6-1-0 with a 1.81 goals-against average in these playoffs filling in for a now-healthy Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Penguins overcame Kris Letang's Game 4 absence after the cornerstone defenseman was suspended one game for an illegal hit in Monday's win.
Trevor Daley did his part to offset Letang's departure with a huge Game 4. The in-season acquisition scored Pittsburgh's first goal and was a plus-3 in a team-best 28:41 of ice time while helping keep Alex Ovechkin off the scoresheet.
''It wasn't a perfect game by any stretch but we're playing against a pretty good opponent and Tanger's a tough guy to replace,'' coach Mike Sullivan said. ''Guys had to play more minutes, more significant roles. I thought the group of them did a tremendous job.”
Such performances have been par for the course for Pittsburgh since Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston in mid-December. The Penguins were ninth in the East at the time, but vaulted to second in the Metropolitan Division after a 14-2-0 finish with star forward Evgeni Malkin sidelined for nearly that entire run.
Washington, which went a league-leading 27-6-8 in one-goal games en route to a franchise-record 120 points, returns home in an all-too-familiar position. The Capitals have been a No. 1 or 2 seed three times previously since 2009 and failed to reach the conference finals each time.
The Capitals have recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a series once in the 11-year Ovechkin era, rallying past the New York Rangers in the 2009 quarterfinals before falling to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in the second round.
''We have the experience, the composure,'' said Holtby, who has allowed three or more goals in three of the four games. ''It's just a matter of putting it to use now and keep pushing forward. Hopefully the bounces will go our way sooner or later.''
Getting production from sources other than Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson, who have accounted for 12 of the Capitals' 23 postseason goals, would help as well. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov have been particularly quiet, recording just one assist each in the series after both had at least 70 points in the regular season.
Washington will attempt to stay alive with defenseman Brooks Orpik still unavailable as the ex-Penguin finishes serving a three-game suspension for a high hit on Olli Maatta in Game 2.
Maatta is expected to miss a third straight game after sustaining an upper-body injury on the play. Pittsburgh will have forward Eric Fehr back after the key penalty killer sat out Game 4 with an undisclosed injury.