When your opponent is dominating the first period but a deflection makes you the first team on the board, then your second goal goes in a minute later from a net-front pass that deflects in off your player’s back– well, it might just be your night.
Tom Kuhnhackl’s goal at 7:37 came on just the Penguins’ fourth shot – if you can classify an off-the-back deflection as a shot – while the Capitals had more than double that. And Washington kept pouring it on.
By the start of the third period, the Capitals were still doubling up the Penguins on the shot clock, 28-14, but the scoreboard still read 2-0 in favor of the home team. The red-hot line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel got some nifty playmaking to tack on another and make it 3-0.
Matt Murray, the Penguins’ 21-year-old rookie netminder, was having a star turn. The problem was that the Penguins decided to sit back and let him.
By the end of the contest, Murray had faced 49 shots and stopped 47 of them, with the Penguins holding on by the skin of their teeth to edge the Capitals, 3-2, and take a 2-1 series lead.
“The [49-23] disparity in shots was because they had the puck all night and we didn’t,” said head coach Mike Sullivan “Obviously that’s an area where, in the first two games, we felt we had the puck for long stretches of the game. Tonight was a different story.
“I thought they beat us to loose pucks. They won puck battles. They outplayed us in a lot of aspects of the game. The scoring chances we got, we were very opportunistic, and I thought our goaltender was tremendous.”
That, needless to say, was not the game plan.
“I think it was more us than them,” Hagelin said. “We didn’t play at all with the intensity we need. We didn’t have the speed we need, and that’s something we’ve got to look at and adjust for the next game. We’re not a team that wants to sit back and give that team as much room as they got, because they’re good at skating with the puck; they can make plays.”
“They were the way better team all night,” said Patric Hornqvist, who deflected in the opening goal. “We couldn’t get a hold of it; I don’t know why. [Sometimes] when you get a two-goal lead you sit back, and they have some good players. They’re really skilled, and they throw a lot of pucks at the net. Without Murray, there’s no way we win this game.”
Murray’s performance was that much more impressive when you consider the long shadow he might have seen over his shoulder. Longtime starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury had finally been cleared from a concussion earlier in the day, and Monday night he returned to the ice – as Murray’s backup.
“I think those guys have a great relationship, and I think Matt is a mature kid,” Sullivan said. “I think Matt handles his circumstance the right way, and one of the things he’s really good at is that he controls what he can and doesn’t concern himself with what he can’t.”
Fleury was gracious in his praise of Murray, who is widely expected to replace him full-time as the Penguins’ No. 1 goaltender in the near future.
“He was awesome all night,” Fleury said. “He kept us in the game, that’s for sure; he made some big ones until the end. Since he’s been with us, he’s been great.”
Fleury also appreciated the opportunity to get back to a sense of normalcy after a slow and frustrating recovery process. “It was nice,” he said. “I got to cheer my teammates from the bench, and just getting back into the game-day routine was nice. More normal.”
Hanging on for the one-goal win and taking the series lead was especially important for the Penguins, because things are likely about to get tougher.
With young defenseman Olli Maatta sidelined with a presumed concussion from Brooks Orpik’s hit to the head in Game 2, Penguins blueliner Kris Letang delivered a high, late hit to the Capitals’ Marcus Johansson late in the first period of Game 3.
Orpik’s hit was worth a three-game suspension, and it would be surprising if Letang – arguably the Penguins’ most important player, with the ability to carry a heavy workload and play in all situations – wasn’t penalized with one or more.
“I didn’t see [a replay]; things happened fast,” Letang said. “I saw him coming full-speed; I tried to step up in the middle to hit him. I’m trying to make sure he doesn’t go to the net. I know he was down after the hit, but I’m glad he was OK. He finished the game [and] was pretty physical on me afterwards, so I was happy he was not injured.”
Forward Bryan Rust also got hurt blocking a shot in the opening minutes of Game 3 and did not return.
“Well, whatever happens to our team, we have other players coming in working hard,” Hagelin said. “That’s what’s fun about this team. Guys are coming in doing their job, and whatever happens happens.”
Whichever players suit up for Game 4 will need to get back to playing the Penguins’ game, because the way Pittsburgh managed to eke out the win Monday is unlikely to work twice.
“When our team is at its best, our defense starts 190 feet from our net with our puck pursuit, hanging onto pucks down low in the offensive zone, controlling territory and using our foot speed to our advantage,” Sullivan said. “And I don’t think we were able to do that tonight.”
Still, a win is a win, and the Penguins are one closer in this best-of-seven series.
“We have to be better next game. It’s not good enough today, and we all know it,” Hornqvist said. “But, at the end of the day, we get the win, and that’s what matters in the playoffs. That’s what good teams do; they find a way to win when they don’t play their best, and that’s what we did tonight.”