After a sloppy opening to their second-round playoff series at Washington, the Pittsburgh Penguins started Game 2 looking determined to get back to what got them there – speed and puck possession.
“I liked our energy,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I thought we were controlling play and coming out of our end zone very efficiently, and we were hanging onto pucks down low underneath the hash marks. When we do that, I think we’re hard to play against.”
The Penguins spent most of the first two periods in the Capitals’ zone, outshooting their longtime division rivals by identical, 14-5 margins both times. Winger Carl Hagelin had gotten the visitors on the board early in the second, but that slender, 1-0 lead was all they had to show for two periods of dominance.
Early in the third, Marcus Johnansson and the Capitals were able to do something Pittsburgh didn’t in five opportunities – convert on a power play. Just like that, Washington had wiped out the Penguins’ two-period advantage, and the ice started to tilt in the other direction.
The Capitals carried the third period, storming the Penguins’ end with a 14-shot barrage. But Matt Murray, the Penguins’ 21-year-old netminder, managed to stop 13 of them.
“I thought Matt was real solid,” Sullivan said. “It was a challenging game in the sense that he didn’t see a lot of shots early and then, in the third, they pressed and he saw significantly more action. I thought his focus was really good and, when we needed him down the stretch, he made the timely saves for us.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s tough; it’s just a different challenge,” Murray said. “I went quite a few minutes at the start of the second period where I didn’t see a puck. It’s just a challenge to stay engaged mentally; I try to play the puck a lot more when that stuff happens. It’s all mental; not a huge deal.”
After one of Murray’s third-period stops, the Penguins came the other way. In what had to be an especially sweet feeling, Eric Fehr, who spent nine seasons with the Capitals, redirected a pass from Evgeni Malkin to put home the eventual game-winner with under five minutes remaining.
“It was a huge goal,” Fehr said. “We weren’t happy letting them back in with their power-play goal, and we were able to fight back and get the lead back. It’s difficult with a team like that; they had a lot of momentum in the third and were feeding off the crowd. To be able to help out the cause and contribute offensively feels really good.”
The Penguins’ tough third period was partly the result of having to play with five defensemen for nearly the entire contest. At just four minutes in, former Penguin Brooks Orpik laid a typical Orpik hit – high, hard and devastating – on young defenseman Olli Maatta.
Maatta looked dazed as he was helped off the ice and did not return. The 21-year-old Finn has a concussion history.
Orpik’s hit led with the elbow and made direct impact with Maatta’s head. It was called as interference and earned him a two-minute penalty, which the Capitals – as with the other four Penguins power plays on the night – killed off.
“I thought it was a late hit,” Sullivan said. “I thought it was a target to his head. I think it’s the type of hit that everyone in hockey is trying to remove from the game.”
The Penguins’ five remaining defensemen worked hard to compensate for the loss of Maatta, with Kris Letang leading the way with 35:22 of ice time. That’s a tall order made even tougher given the styles the two clubs play.
“When you’re a team that wants to play fast and get your D in on the rush, it was tough,” Letang said. “But I think we did a great job, and the forwards did a great job helping us. After the first period we talked about it, just making sure we don’t turn the puck over because, on the back end, we want to change fast and short shifts.”
“This is a physical series so it’s [already] taxing, and the minutes add up,” Sullivan said. “To lose a guy that early in the game, fortunately for us we’ve got a couple guys back there who are real efficient. Letang can play a lot of minutes, so that helps.”
The Penguins succeeded in staying disciplined in the face of the Capitals’ physicality, allowing Washington only two power plays.
“The ultimate goal is to win and we all have that in mind,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We know that taking that hit or taking that punch is going to go a long way. Hopefully we keep getting power plays and find a way to convert on them.”
Most importantly for the Penguins, they spent the majority of the game looking like the Penguins again.
“I think that’s what got us here,” Crosby said. “We’re a skilled and fast team, and a lot of teams try to slow us down or be extra physical against us. We know if we get sucked into that, we’re getting away from our game, and we’re not productive that way. I think it’s pretty clear – we know if we get caught up in that, we put ourselves in a bad position.”
“We tried to be on the offense,” Fehr said. “We’re not as good when we’re sitting back and giving their really skilled players opportunities to make plays.”
They also demonstrated the resilience that’s become a Penguins trademark, responding to the Capitals’ third-period dominance with Fehr’s game-winning goal.
“I think there are critical moments in every game that lie in having handled them the right way if you’re going to control the result, and I thought we did that tonight,” Sullivan said. “It could’ve deflated us that our power play wasn’t at its best, but it didn’t. We didn’t allow those types of situations to get our team down. These are two really good hockey teams; they’re going to get their chances. If they score, we have to respond the right way.”
Because of that response, the Penguins return to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4 with home-ice advantage.
“We’ve got to go and do the job there,” Crosby said. “We’ve got some momentum and hopefully can build off of this one, but we’ve played some good hockey the past two games. We’ve just got to continue to play the same way. Don’t change a thing, and expect a big pushback from them in Game 3.”