For the second straight game, the Penguins didn’t have the chances the Washington Capitals did. They were outshot, 36-24, including a 16-5 first period, and had to block 33 more on their way to the net. They didn’t have the better of the puck possession or zone time, and it wasn’t even close.
For the second straight game, it didn’t matter. The Penguins pounced on their opportunities, got another strong performance from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and left Verizon Center with a 6-2 win, and a 2-0 lead in their second-round series.
Surviving a first period where Washington was on the attack, with that flurry of shots and two power plays, with a 0-0 score was a win for the Penguins.
“We certainly would like to have better starts, but I think you have to give credit to our opponents as well,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “These are some of the best teams in the league we’re playing. And a game like tonight is an important game, and we knew we were going to get Washington’s very best from the drop of the puck.”
Helping them withstand the early storm was Fleury.
“He’s been our best player,” Sullivan said. “I think in the first series and the first two games here, he’s made timely saves for us, especially in that first period. I don’t know what else I can say. He’s a great competitor, a great teammate, and he’s really risen to the challenge. If you look at tonight’s game, they come at us pretty hard there in the first period. They had a few high-quality chances, he made some timely saves and gave us a chance to get our game going. Marc’s making big plays for us.”
“Flower was great for us,” winger Phil Kessel said. “He kept us in it, and we just battled and got back to our game.”
Early in the second, Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel took a penalty, and the special teams traded goals in an eventful, one-minute span – Pittsburgh’s Matt Cullen with the shortie, and Washington’s Matt Niskanen on the power play. Then, 10 minutes later, the Penguins started to take control, with captain Sidney Crosby doing some impressive work to enter the zone, controlling the puck between his skates, drawing three Capitals defenders and then dishing it off to Kessel to make it 2-1.
A few minutes later, Crosby dove to push the puck up to linemate Jake Guentzel, who came in alone to beat Washington netminder Braden Holtby and pad the Penguins’ lead to 3-1.
“The playoffs are made of big moments, and that’s where your goalie needs to come up with a save,” Holtby said. “I just didn’t.”
“He’s the best 200-foot player in the game, in my estimation,” Sullivan said of Crosby. “He defends as well as he plays with the puck and creates offense. He’s a committed guy right now. I think he sees an opportunity for this team to have success, and I think he leads by example. And, when he does that, he’s inspiring to his teammates and his coaching staff.”
The Capitals, looking for a spark to compete with the Penguins’ sense of urgency, replaced Holtby for the third period with Philipp Grubauer. It didn’t help.
Instead of sitting on the lead, Pittsburgh kept pushing for the next goal and added two, from Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, and an empty netter from Guentzel. Caps center Nicklas Backstrom got one to narrow the Penguins’ lead to 4-2, but the two-goal deficit lasted for less than two minutes.
The Capitals, dominating through two games with a 68 percent Corsi For, are losing to a team that has a knack for finding ways to win.
“I think we’ve got a gritty group. They’re scrappy,” Sullivan said. “It’s a never-say-die attitude. It’s not perfect by any stretch out there and we’re aware of that, but what I love about this group of players is that they respond the right way. They’ve shown an ability to do that time and time again. And this group finds ways to have success.”
One way the Penguins are doing that is by taking advantage of the Capitals’ aggressive forecheck to find open ice when they do get the puck.
“When the opportunities do present themselves, these guys take advantage,” Sullivan said. “When teams want to play an aggressive game against us, there’s risk-reward. So, when we get high-quality opportunities, that’s when we believe our quick-strike capability is at its best.”
Washington faces an uphill battle when they come to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4. The Penguins are one of the NHL’s best home teams, and hold a 12-4 record at PPG Paints Arena over the last two postseasons, including a 3-0 record this year.
“It’s nice to get the first two, but there’s a reason it’s a seven-game series,” Kessel said. “We’ve got to keep battling, keep playing good hockey. They’re a good team over there and they’re sure going to come fighting.”
The Penguins, meanwhile, have things to improve. Like those slow starts, which have been an issue since round one.
“I don’t think you want to do that consistently; I don’t think you’re giving yourself a great chance by doing that. So we’ve got to be better,” Crosby said. “It’s normal that, when a team comes out at home, there’s a push early, but I think tonight it was almost the whole first period.”
“The one area where I know we can improve in this series is just in the grind game, down low in the offensive zone and the puck pursuit game,” Sullivan said. “And I thought we showed signs of it in the second and third periods tonight. Hanging onto pucks, protecting pucks and forcing our opponent to have to defend us. That’s an important part of our game, because it helps us control territory and momentum, and we spend less time defending.”
Pittsburgh may also face some lineup changes. Speedy forward Carl Hagelin returned for his first game since sustaining a lower-body injury on March 10. But forward Patric Hornqvist, who’s been playing on the top line with Crosby, left after blocking a shot with his shin. Defenseman Ron Hainsey also left after taking a shot to the ear late in the game.
Regardless of the lineup, it’s starting to feel like these Penguins have a chance to, once again, accomplish something special this spring.
“We had a few guys go down through the course of the game tonight, and it’s so great to listen to our players and how they support each other when they go over the boards,” Sullivan said. “They’re really a privilege to coach, this group. They play hard for one another, and I think that’s what makes our team what it is.
“I believe we have a unique chemistry. It’s fun to be a part of it.”