First Line Problems: Penguins 3, Capitals 2 (Recap)

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Crosby and Kunitz may have a new BFF in Lee Stempniak.

Lee Stempniak was supposed to be Pittsburgh's trade deadline consolation prize after having missed out on Ryan Kesler last week.

Following Monday's 3-2 win over division rival Washington, Stempniak has his first points as a Penguin -- two assists, including the primary helper on Chris Kunitz's GWG.

Another performance like that on Tuesday and he may soon have a permanent home at the top of the roster.

Stempniak, Kunitz and Sidney Crosby combined for all three goals and seven points against the Capitals, moving the Penguins back into the top spot in the Eastern Conference while capping off a season-long five-game road trip with a clean win.

"Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Stempniak not only found some plays, some chances, they were exceptional," Dan Bylsma said.

With the win, the Penguins managed to come away from a season-long road trip that started out with a nightmarish showing at the Stadium Series finale and ended not with a flourish, but perhaps a sigh of relief. The Pens managed to secure six out of ten points (3-2-0) despite being outshot 170-110 on the trip.

Pittsburgh now holds a 16-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, including a 20-point lead on Washington, who currently sits outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Despite the strong showing from the team's top line and special teams, there's still plenty of work to do.

The Penguins at some point will have to account for their third and fourth line wingers, who were again unable to drive any sort of possession despite the solid play of centers Brandon Sutter and Marcel Goc (the only Pens forwards with non-negative Corsi numbers for the game).

It was thought that Stempniak might be a boon for Sutter, who has been saddled with more than a dozen wingers this season, none of whom seem to be able to add offensive acumen to the team's bottom six.

Instead, Stempniak might be the cure to what ails the team's top line.

"There are a lot of reads I need to get better at," Stempniak said. "[Crosby and Kunitz] have been playing together a long time. For me knowing where pucks will go and where they want support, little things like that will come with time.

"Hopefully, it comes quicker than later."

Monday's tilt was just Stempniak's third with the team since being dealt from the Calgary Flames to Pittsburgh, and he found his first points by assisting on both of Kunitz's goals. Pittsburgh's top line was its best in an often one-sided game that saw the Capitals earn a clear edge in possession and chances, if not the win.

Pascal Dupuis's absence has created havoc on the first line, where Crosby and Kunitz have struggled to find a suitable winger even approaching what Dupuis brought to the line.

Stempniak, a nine-year NHL veteran, helped to stabilize the line Monday. Pittsburgh's possession numbers have gone catastrophically south since the Olympic break. The Crosby-Kunitz-Dupuis unit was a possession nightmare before being broken up in December, and no one who has slotted into Dupuis's spot has been able to recreate the kind of down-low cycling that the former trio could put together on command.

Monday wasn't a total step in the right direction. The line still combined to post a minus-15 corsi, or on-ice differential of shots, blocked shots and attempted shots for and against. To be fair, the whole team was a mess in this regard. Nonetheless, the could-be-new Crosby line contributed both of the team's goals at even-strength, including the game winner.

Pittsburgh thrives when playing for extended stretches in the offensive zone, and the absence of Paul Martin and Kris Letang has greatly hindered Pittsburgh's ability to play a strong transition game.

The team's last two wins have come because the Penguins have been opportunistic, if not very strong offensively. They'll need to continue burying those few chances until the ship can be righted if they want to hold off the Boston Bruins, who have closed to within a point of the Penguins in the East.

Pittsburgh gets to return home Tuesday in the second of a home-and-home with the Capitals, where the Penguins are a league-best 23-4-2 on the season. The Pens looked gassed at times Monday, and will have little time to recover playing the second of a back-to-back against the playoff-bubble Capitals.

Marc-Andre Fleury is slated to get Tuesday's start.

Audio courtesy Jason Seidling & Pittsburgh Penguins.

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