PITTSBURGH â€” Forget about revenge for the brutal cross-check that knocked Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby out of the playoffs indefinitely.
Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t want any part of it. The Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender came up with a more effective method of retribution against the Washington Capitals.
“The best way to make them pay is winning,” Fleury said.
Something the defending Stanley Cup champions keep doing no matter who is â€” and who isn’t â€” in the lineup.
Fleury stopped 36 shots, rookie Jake Guentzel took advantage of a fortunate bounce for his playoff-leading eighth goal and Pittsburgh pushed Washington to the brink of elimination with a 3-2 victory in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Game 5 is Saturday night in Washington.
Outplay and outshoot the Penguins all you want. Outscoring them is another matter entirely.
Patric Hornqvist provided the Penguins with an early boost and Justin Schultz’s power-play goal just past the game’s midway point was enough for Fleury to do the rest .
Rendered a backup most of the season behind Matt Murray, Fleury is now Pittsburgh’s most vital player, one who seems to thrive in the face of Washington’s incessant pressure.
“He’s elevated his game at an important time,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a competitive guy. He’s a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender and I think he’s showing it.”
Consider the Capitals believers. Washington has pumped 142 shots at Fleury through four games, nearly 50 more shots than the Penguins have managed the other way (93). And yet all those opportunities have translated into just one victory.
“We had good chances and we didn’t bury them,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “Our backs are against the wall.”
Again. One more win by Pittsburgh and the Penguins will send the Presidents’ Trophy winners home for the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings.
The Capitals insist it’s not mental, though at times they were their own worst enemy. Guentzel’s goal came when a crossing pass deflected off Washington defenceman Dmitry Orlov and by Braden Holtby .
Washington took seven penalties, including a high-sticking call against T.J. Oshie with less than two minutes left in regulation.
Oshie called it an “amateur play,” one symbolic of a night in which the Capitals failed to take advantage of a Penguins team missing Crosby, defenceman Kris Letang and forward Conor Sheary.
Alexander Ovechkin managed just two shots and Washington’s power play went 0 for 4.
“I would say our top players didn’t play as well as they need to be to be top players,” Trotz said. “They need to step up right now.”
Capitals centre Jay Beagle believed things could get “nasty” as the series moved forward after Matt Niskanen’s shot to Crosby’s head early in Washington’s Game 3 victory.
Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel countered that Beagle’s assertion that Niskanen’s shot was “clean” made Beagle “an idiot.” Beagle jokingly suggested the two work out their differences over a video game.
The nastiness never showed up. The “Mario Kart” showdown Beagle wanted will have to wait too.
The Penguins used subtle gestures, not their fists, to make a point. Fleury has more than a dozen names of teammates and former teammates written on his goalie mask. The list includes Niskanen, who played four years in Pittsburgh before signing with Washington in 2014. Niskanen’s name was taped over before Game 4, though Fleury demurred when asked why.
Save for a scrap in the second period that amounted to little more than an extended wrestling match between Chris Kunitz and Tom Wilson â€” who made a run at Kunitz but missed â€” things stayed relatively tame.
An emotional and energetic start and a dash of luck allowed Pittsburgh to build a 2-0 lead. Hornqvist took a feed from Olli Maatta and beat a pair of Washington defenders to break in on Holtby. A flick of Hornqvist’s wrists and the puck sailed over Holtby’s glove and under the crossbar 4:39 into the first period to put the home team ahead for the first time in the series.
The Penguins’ advantage doubled 3:51 into the second when Guentzel’s cross to Matt Cullen instead ended up in the Washington net.
The Capitals tied it within a 72-second span later in the second. Justin Williams escaped a pair of Penguins on the boards and fed Evgeny Kuznetsov at the top of the circle for a wrist shot that zipped by Fleury.
Just over a minute later, Oshie’s shot caromed off the end boards and straight to Nate Schmidt, who beat Fleury for the first playoff goal of his career.
Pittsburgh’s power play, which struggled early in the series even with Crosby in the lineup, came through when a blast from Schultz 11:24 into the second put the Penguins back in front.
Fleury did the rest as he continued his renaissance with starter Matt Murray out indefinitely with a lower-body injury. Fleury withstood surge after surge and when his teammates finally found their legs late in the third period, Washington found itself on the brink of having another promising season end with a loss to their longtime rivals.
“Right now Game 7 is every game for us,” Ovechkin said.
NOTES: Pittsburgh improved to 5-4 in the playoffs without Crosby during his career. … Washington again went with seven defencemen in the lineup for a second straight game.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press