In a game that was nothing less than the most pivotal of both teams’ seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to overcome the loss of perhaps their most important player, while the Washington Capitals couldn’t take advantage of a golden opportunity to pull even.
Instead, this year’s Presidents Trophy winner heads home to Washington on the brink of elimination.
“We knew going in, when you lose your top minute guy, probably our best player the whole year, it wasn’t going to be just the six of us; we all had to step up as a group,” said Trevor Daley – who, with Kris Letang serving a one-game suspension, led the Penguins’ defensive corps with 28:41 of ice time.
“I thought they were terrific, the whole group,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “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. He’s an elite player. A lot of guys had to step up and play more minutes, play more significant roles, and I thought the group of them did a tremendous job.”
The Penguins also continue to be without Letang’s defensive partner Olli Maatta, sidelined since sustaining a head shot from former Penguin Brooks Orpik in Game 2. Wednesday, they were also missing forward Eric Fehr with an undisclosed injury.
“We didn’t take advantage of it,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “One thing I said to the guys, when Kris got the suspension, is that [the Penguins] were going to rally. They talked about how they didn’t play their best game [in Game 3]; now they had Letang out and they knew everybody had to step up on their side. And I thought they did.”
Stepping up regardless of circumstances has become part of the Penguins’ DNA.
“That’s been our group this year,” Daley said. “Whether we’re down by a goal, or I remember a time when [the media] was all over us about our first-period play, we’ve always found ways to get the job done. That’s what this team’s been all about. We started it a while ago, and it’s continued on.”
For 60 minutes Wednesday, the two teams battled to a 2-2 draw. Unlike the other games of this series, there was no clear domination of any period, no clear shot advantage, no long periods of sustained pressure for either side. Goals were met with response goals, hits were met with hits – the Penguins, uncharacteristically, led the Capitals 47-41 in that category – and, after regulation, nothing had been decided.
“The series is physical and it’s a grind; nobody’s letting up,” said forward Matt Cullen who, at age 39, turned his speed into a go-ahead goal for the Penguins early in the second period. “It’s really fun to play; I’ve got to believe it’s fun to watch. It’s some high-level hockey. Two really good teams and there are chances both ways. Both teams had a lot of opportunities.”
But the only opportunity that really mattered was the one that came at 2:34 of overtime, when Patric Hornqvist took advantage of Pittsburgh native Mike Weber’s defensive miscue to bury the game-winner.
“It’s hard not to love [Hornqvist],” Sullivan said. “He just loves hockey, he loves being around it, he loves to compete. He’s full of energy. He wears his emotions right on his sleeve, sometimes to a fault. But we love him. We love what he brings to this team. He plays the game in battle areas, he goes to the net, he does a lot of those thankless jobs that you can’t quantify but it helps teams win.
“To see him get rewarded in overtime for us is a thrill, because he really is a great teammate and a passionate guy about the game.”
“I was huffing and puffing on the bench” when the goal was scored, said defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “I had just gotten off; I was exhausted. And it is the best feeling. We worked incredibly hard for that one tonight.”
With timely stops from rookie netminder Matt Murray and Hornqvist’s goal, the Penguins snapped their eight-game playoff overtime losing streak, and what could have been one lucky Capitals bounce away from a 2-2 series tipped to a 3-1 Penguins stranglehold.
“Those are always tough,” Trotz said. “That’s why it’s sudden-death; that’s what it feels like. We’ll have to deal with it. We dug ourselves a hole, and we’ll have to see if we can dig ourselves out a little bit.”
“I think it’s all what you do with the opportunity,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “We put ourselves in a position to close out in Game 5, and everybody knows it’s going to be the most difficult one. We’ve got to find a way to close it out there.”
Having Letang back will only help that cause.
“We’re excited to have Kris back,” Lovejoy joked of his fellow blueliner, who played 35:22 in Game 2 after the loss of Maatta shortened the Penguins’ bench. “He should be well-rested after tonight, and we’re expecting him to play 44-48 minutes in Washington.”