The benumbed expression on the faces of the Washington Capitals as they lined up for the traditional post-series handshake pretty much said it all.
After stumbling through the previous two contests in zombie-like fashion, the real Pittsburgh Penguins showed up last night at the Verizon Center in DC. Indeed, for the first time in a good, long while the Pens produced an effort worthy of defending Stanley Cup champions, resulting in a stunning 2-0 Game Seven triumph.
“That might be the best game that we’ve played in the playoffs to this point, and I thought that was the closest thing to the Penguins identity that we’ve seen in the playoffs so far,” noted Pens coach Mike Sullivan.
I fully understand the Capitals’ collective shock. It wasn’t the outcome I expected, either. Truth be told, I thought I’d be writing the Pens’ epitaph this morning. Especially when the first five minutes or so resembled a continuation of our horrific Game Six loss.
While the Caps—flush with recent success—attacked with fire and purpose, the Pens collapsed almost by reflex into a defensive shell. Marc-Andre Fleury resembled a puppet dancing on tangled wires, scrambling this way and that in a desperate attempt to keep the puck out of his net.
Frankly, I thought we were goners.
“Go!” I yelled in wide-eyed exasperation as Sidney Crosby cleared the puck but failed to follow up, instead chasing off for a line change. “Goooooooooo!”
It was gut-check time, plain and simple.
Mercifully, our guys responded. Slowly at first, with a cautious thrust or two. Then, in a bold stroke, as Evgeni Malkin stripped the puck from countryman Dmitry Orlov, zoomed into the Washington end and tested Caps goalie Braden Holtby with one his patently brilliant maneuvers that remind me so much of Mario Lemieux.
Unfortunately, “Geno” tripped T.J. Oshie seconds later to open the door for the Caps. Carter Rowney, one of two prescient lineup additions by Sullivan, led a determined penalty kill.
Soon, we were skating on even terms with our hosts. A little puck luck didn’t hurt, especially when ex-Pen Daniel Winnik shanked his breakaway attempt after turning Chad Ruhwedel inside out in the neutral zone.
Ruhwedel soon made amends, flattening the pesky Oshie with a jarring check inside the Pens’ blue line. That’s when I truly knew we’d come to play.
Following two iffy outings, Fleury was superb once again. Flashing the leather, No. 29 blunted a rapid-fire shorthanded salvo late in the first period and made game-saving stops on Andre Burakovsky, Alex Ovechkin and Lars Eller early in the second.
“Flower’s” heroics paved the way for a Pens counterstrike near the nine-minute mark. Ian Cole made an alert play at the point to push the puck to Crosby. Sid immediately fed Jake Guentzel, who spotted Bryan Rust cruising below the right circle. Guentzel hit Rust with a slashing, cross-crease pass and the Notre Dame grad did the rest, launching a one-timer over Holtby’s shoulder.
The Pens padded their lead at 4:14 of the third period on a lightning-bolt of a goal by Patric Hornqvist, courtesy of a turnover by “the Great Eight,” Ovechkin. The salty Swede flagged down a hurried chip from teammate Justin Schultz, stickhandled around Kevin Shattenkirk, and roofed a backhander off the crossbar and in.
Backed by Fleury’s immaculate goaltending, the Pens shut down the Caps the rest of the way.
“It was a long series against a good team,” noted Fleury afterward. “They came hard at us till the end, and we’re proud of the way we played tonight and the way we handled the pressure and these guys over the series.”
Amen, Flower. Glad to finally have the Caps in our rearview mirror.
Eight down. Eight to go.
Kudos to Sully
Sullivan and assistants Jacques Martin and Rick Tocchet made a ton of key adjustments. The black-and-gold forwards appeared to venture deeper in the defensive zone to help with the transitions. Especially active, the Pens’ defense pinched at every prudent opportunity, enabling the locals to keep the pressure on the Caps.
“Sully” was quick to credit his troops for the victory.
“I don’t know if I can say enough about this group of players,” he said. “We’ve been through so much since I’ve been here. They just always find a way to respond the right way to any of the challenges or the adversities that this league throws at us, and they did it again tonight. I think these guys are at their best when the stakes are high.”
Washington again controlled the action from a statistical standpoint. The Capitals held an edge in shot attempts (61-48), shots on goal (29-28), faceoffs (36-23) and hits (32-29). In typical black-and-blue fashion, the Pens blocked 19 shots to the Caps 9.
It truly was a team victory, as 10 Penguins finished the game a plus. Fleury made 29 saves to earn star of the game honors. Rust was named the second star.
Rowney and Scott Wilson dressed in place of Carl Hagelin and Tom Kuhnhackl. Carter registered three hits, two shots on goal and two takeaways. “Willy” dished out two hits and swapped punches with former Pen Brooks Orpik in the third period. It was the first fight in an NHL Game Seven since 1993.
Brian Dumoulin played a particularly strong game on defense. The Maine native led all skaters in ice time (23:40) and recorded three hits and three blocked shots. Hornqvist and Olli Maatta paced the Pens with four hits apiece.
Ovechkin was on the ice for both Penguins goals.
It’s the Pens ‘n’ Sens in the Eastern Conference Final. The series opener is slated for Saturday at PPG Paints Arena.