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Recap: As is their style, Penguins don’t make it easy, but deliver KO shot to Washington

Evgeni Malkin’s eventful third period of a costly penalty and then game-winning goal completes a thrilling — but too difficult — win for the Penguins, who almost blow another game.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images


Jason Zucker wasn’t on the ice for the pre-game skate, but he’s able to play in the game. Tristan Jarry is recovered enough to serve as backup, but not start. Jeff Petry remains out of the lineup as the closest injured player getting back in.

The Capitals come to town with this lineup.

First period

Washington/Pittsburgh games are intense at any time of year, but with only a handful of games remaining and both teams desperate to get it in gear, that’s especially true for a hot start in this game.

The Capitals get the first few shots in the game, but they also take the first trip to the penalty box when Nicolas Aube-Kubel grabs a hold of Ryan Poehling. The Penguins’ power play isn’t sharp to start, minus one Jake Guentzel shot that was saved by Darcy Kuemper routinely enough.

Pittsburgh builds on it with all of Zucker, Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell having chances from in tight to score but failing to do so. The Pens’ pressure on the forecheck causes T.J. Oshie to get his stick in the chops of Drew O’Connor, yielding the second Pens’ power play. No dice again, with Sidney Crosby having to play defense and stop a Washington rush.

The sequence repeats after the bad power play where Rakell and Zucker get really nice shots at scoring but fail. And then the Caps get their first crack at the power play when 230 pound Alex Ovechkin sure does drop mighty fast and easily when he feels a stick near his skates (it was a trip from Kris Letang but perhaps not the world’s strongest trip as it appeared).

Washington gets their money’s worth in terms of tons of zone time in the two minutes, but fail to score.

The Malkin line again flexes muscle with a dominant shift, but still can’t find a goal as the horn sounds for the first intermission. Shots are 13-9 PIT, but they haven’t solved Kuemper.

Second period

Casey DeSmith is in the game with a couple of big stops on Anthony Mantha early in the second. Zucker gets a breakaway but can’t get a shot attempt and DeSmith is called on again to shut down Dylan Strome on a 2-on-1.

Alex Ovechkin has a shooting lane coming down the right side and he...lays off the puck in a pass attempt? John Carlson one-times it and DeSmith lunges over and makes a HUGE save. (If being critical, not the best placed shot from Carlson, but it had heat on it and was a goal without a great lateral slide by DeSmith). Also strange for Ovechkin not to rip it, though that’s probably why he did the unexpected.

With the Caps starting to play more on their toes and gaining momentum, Pittsburgh strikes for the first goal. Danton Heinen breaks up a weak play of the puck by John Carlson after a deflection and springs Ryan Poehling on a breakaway. Poehling fights off the back-track of Rasmus Sandin and then chips a shot over the glove of Kuemper. 1-0 Pens at the 10:10 mark.

All this offensive talent on the ice, it’s a very unlikely second goal scorer in the game with Chad Ruhwedel and his first tally of the entire season. Ruhwedel somehow, someway ends up leading an odd-man rush and blasts a beauty of a shot to the top corner over Kuemper’s glove. 2-0 Pens who break out for two goals in 2:07 of game action.

After a prolonged wall battle, tempers boil over and Sandin and Josh Archibald drop the gloves in a strange pairing of a fight. Archibald delivers a bunch of punches and scores the clean knockdown on what I’m guessing is one of the first fights of Sandin’s life.

P.O. Joseph turns the puck over at the offensive blueline and it’s a clean breakaway for Ovechkin. This time he shoots after deking to the forehand, DeSmith’s legs are up for the task with another monster stop.

The Caps start to spiral, Nicklas Backstrom resorts to tackling Mikael Granlund for a late period Penguin power play. Guentzel gets a glorious amount of net to shoot at but Kuemper’s glove gets the shot.

Washington gets a last gasp 2-on-1 in the last few seconds and DeSmith stymies them yet again with a couple more quality stops.

Shots in the electric and completely unpredictable second period were 15-14 PIT. No shortages of chances at either end, with the difference being the performance of DeSmith and Pittsburgh getting some depth scoring by way of two goals on counter-attack rushes.

Third period

Pittsburgh starts the third with a brief carry-over power play, and Guentzel hits paydirt. Somehow the Caps give him a clean breakaway due to an errant Tom Wilson pass (lol), and Guentzel coolly snaps a shot five-hole to extend the lead to 3-0.

Scary moment when Zucker and Martin Fehervary get tangled up and slam together in a helpless fallen heap into the back boards. Both are very slow to get back to their feet and depart to their respective locker-rooms. Wilson atones for his previous mistake by scoring right in front after getting the best of Kris Letang, 3-1 game with 14:41 to go.

Ovechkin heads to the penalty box for a slash on Guentzel’s thumb. Tempers flare after a whistle, Nic Dowd punches Malkin in the face but when Malkin retaliates he’s the only player heading to the box to even things up at 4v4 in a...predictable result given score and previously called penalties.

Washington gets another gift with a power play on a tripping call against Poehling at 6:46 to go. It only takes four seconds and Alex Ovechkin does what Alex Ovechkin does, ripping a one-timer from the left side. 3-2 Pens still in front but their lead is dwindling and still have 6:42 to go.

The Penguins vs. protecting a lead, the worst rivalry in sports. The blow this one, the Joseph-Letang pair suffers a complete meltdown, and for once DeSmith’s fluttering around the net leaves him out of position for Dylan Strome to find a bouncing puck and tap it home. 3-3 game with 2:46 to go and the Pens in meltdown mode.

But they shake it off and find a way. In a game filled with mistakes, Anthony Mantha makes the most costly one of the night when he keeps the puck going up the middle of the ice and gets picked clean by Malkin for a walk-in breakaway. Malkin shoots hard to the far-side and it’s in! 4-3 Pens back in front with 1:20 still to go.

The Caps call a timeout and prepare for their final push. They get some zone time, but the clock drains away. 4-3 Pittsburgh win.

Some thoughts

  • Both the Pens and Caps were handed good news just before the start of their game, with the Florida Panthers and NY Islanders both losing today in earlier action.
  • DeSmith made a ridiculously amazing save on the Ovechkin-Carlson 2-on-1, then the Pens score the game’s first goal soon after. How many times recently have the Pens been on the bad end of such save-then-goal situations lately? Plenty. Nice to see that go the other way for once, and well-earned by DeSmith on the first save of several amazingly huge and tremendous and all those other complimentary words to describe his goaltending.
  • Washington entered the night only four points away from the playoff line, but with a ton of teams ahead of them and not as many games left as most. As such, most of the popular modeling had them at about a 1% chance to make the playoffs. The Pens might have pulled the plug on any faint hopes of that dream, the Caps are now six points back which sounds less daunting than it actually is with 8-9 games left.
  • The Pens are still stretched thin on the blueline, not the best of highlights for Joseph in this one, and Letang too for that matter. Put together in a first pair role for an extended time like this and eventually cracks will show, but hopefully the mistakes are experience to learn and grow from, since not many left-shot defenders are coming back anytime soon.
  • Ah yes, a second period that featured DeSmith standing on his head, Chad Ruhwedel scoring on a legit nice shot and Josh Archibald easily winning a fight. Just as was expected. What a game, that’s the joy of watching when so many zany things can all happen on any given shift.
  • The Pens have been begging and waiting forever for some other players to step up besides the five or six ones that carry the load every game. It happened tonight. Poehling blocked the Carlson shot to start that sequence, and then took off and actually finished on Kuemper (who was playing very, very well to start the game himself). That meant a lot and then the big bonus came shortly after with Ruhwedel looking like a guy with 12 goals this season, not 12 in his career.
  • Nice to see Zucker return in the third after the big crash into the boards. For a guy coming into this game with so many dents and scratches lately, the last thing he needed was another one.
  • The game changed when Malkin got punched in the face and responded in kind. It’s infuriating to watch it unfold, surely the Caps know if they poke the bear he’s going to take a penalty. And down in the game (and in power play chances) it was tailor-made for a call. It’s easy to say don’t retaliate when it’s not YOU getting punched in the face, but jeez. Luckily, all’s well that ends well and Malkin got his redemption on the GWG of a game that shouldn’t have required such a thrilling ending...But it’s the 2022-23 Pens we’re talking about here, doing it the easy way and coasting to a relatively quiet victory isn’t in the cards.

In some ways, the third period revealed that the warts and troubles that Pittsburgh have are very real and still exist. There’s no reason to think they won’t continue to be the team they’ve been for 70+ games and have the same exact issues in the future. HOWEVA, on a night like this, it’s also satisfying to take two points for the standings while simultaneously delivering the kill shot to a rival’s hopes of making a late run. The Pens these days requires taking the good alongside of the not-so-good, but at least the end result was the same as a 3-0 or 3-1 win.