PITTSBURGH — Outhit, outshot and largely outplayed, Pittsburgh grabbed control of its Eastern Conference semifinal against Washington anyway.
Blame it on a 21-year-old rookie goaltender who hardly seems intimidated by the stakes, the prospect of his mentor watching from the bench or the avalanche of shots from the NHL’s best team.
Matt Murray made 47 stops and the Penguins did just enough counterpunching to edge the Capitals 3-2 on Monday night for a 2-1 lead in an increasingly fractious best-of-seven series living up to its billing.
Article continues below ...
Patric Hornqvist and Tom Kuhnhackl scored a minute apart in the first period, Carl Hagelin added his third of the playoffs in the second and the Penguins held on despite relentless pressure from the Capitals. Alexander Ovechkin and Justin Williams scored in the third, but the Capitals find themselves in a deficit against a franchise they have beaten just once in eight previous playoff meetings.
"They throw a lot of pucks at the net and without Murray, there’s no way we win this game," Hornqvist said. "That’s what good teams team do. They find a way to win games when they don’t play their best and that’s exactly what we did tonight. We have to be better the next game."
One the Penguins might have to play without Kris Letang. The star defenseman earned a two-minute minor for interference in the first period after launching himself at Washington’s Marcus Johansson in a sequence that had some of the same hallmarks of the hit that earned Washington’s Brooks Orpik a three-game suspension for drilling Olli Maatta in Game 2.
Johansson was skating into the offensive zone late in the first period when he was headed off by four Penguins. The puck was steered away and long gone by the time Letang turned toward Johansson and nailed him.
"I saw him coming full speed I tried to step up in the middle," Letang said. "Things happen fast."
Unlike Maatta, Johansson was able to return, though Johansson doesn’t believe that should absolve Letang. Asked if he felt Letang should be suspended, Johansson responded "yeah, I’d say so," adding he was cleared of a potential concussion but is dealing with the aftereffects of whiplash.
"He obviously leaves his feet and hits me in the head," Johansson said. "That’s the kinds of plays you want out of the league. Yeah, it doesn’t look good."
Neither does the way the series looks at the moment for Washington, which had a 49-23 advantage in shots and collected 33 more hits than the Penguins (58-25).
The NHL’s best team during the regular season has just three goals in the last six periods against Murray, who is playing so well Fleury might want to get used to his spot on the bench.
Wearing the same Pittsburgh gold uniforms that team owner Mario Lemieux wore during the club’s consecutive Stanley Cup runs in 1991 and 1992 — runs that included victories over Washington — it seemed like old times for the Penguins, who counterattacked brilliantly.
Sidney Crosby keyed a rush that ended with Conor Sheary chasing down a blocked shot in the corner and feeding it to Trevor Daley at the point. Hornqvist reached out and expertly smacked the puck off the ice, allowing it to skid right by Holtby to give Pittsburgh a lead perhaps it didn’t deserve just 6:37 into the game.
A minute later Washington’s deficit doubled when Nicklas Backstrom whiffed while trying to intercept Letang’s long stretch pass to Cullen. The ensuing 2-on-1 ended with the puck smacking off Kuhnhackl’s back and into the net.
"They play a good game, they use our mistakes," Ovechkin said. "They’re waiting and they use it. Good lessons."
Nate Schmidt opened the door for the Penguins to make it 3-0 late in the second period, flipping a blind backhand pass deep in the Washington end into the slot. Two passes later Hagelin was tipping in a slick feed from Nick Bonino, who drew Holtby out, and then tucked the puck around the sprawled goaltender to Hagelin in front of the open net.
Ovechkin’s fourth of the postseason, a blur that whizzed by Murray’s mask 8:02 into the third, gave Washington momentum, but there wasn’t enough time to catch up. Williams scored with 56 seconds remaining and the Capitals managed a couple more chances in the waning moments but couldn’t sneak anything by Murray.
"I thought he was the reason they had success," Washington coach Barry Trotz said.
And the reason Washington finds itself in a precarious position. Again. Yet the Penguins also understand they can’t rely on Murray so heavily going forward, no matter how steady he looks.
"I think we have to forget about that one," Letang said. "We’re happy about the win but we have to play better."
NOTES: Malkin and Crosby appeared in their 108th playoff game, passing Lemieux for second on the franchise’s list behind Jaromir Jagr (140). … Penguins F Bryan Rust left in the first period with a lower-body after blocking a pair of Washington shots. … The Capitals went 0 for 4 on the power play. Pittsburgh was 0 for 3. … Taylor Chorney played 10:28 while taking Orpik’s spot in the Washington lineup.