With Sidney Crosby out with another concussion, the shorthanded Pittsburgh Penguins faced long odds at home against the Washington Capitals, Wednesday. The Penguins rarely entered the offensive zone after the middle of the second period. Their leading scorers, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel, were among 11 Penguins who did not have a shot on goal. Overall, the Penguins were out-shot 38-18, and it felt like a bigger disparity. Yet the Penguins won 3-2, to claim a 3-1 series lead, because of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins are winning with defense and goaltending. Sometimes, just a Flower in goal. Fleury stopped 36 of 38, some in dramatic fashion.
Fleury made the save of the series, midway through the third period. A defensive lapse by Justin Schultz allowed Capitals center Lars Eller a glorious, uncontested scoring chance. Eller skated from the mid-wall directly across the crease. Eller tried to go around Fleury to the far post.
On this night, as in the series, there was no getting around Fleury.
Unexpected as it may be, this is Marc-Andre Fleury’s moment. In 2009, Fleury won a Stanley Cup but his accomplishments were somewhat obscured by the star-studded team he backstopped. Last season, Fleury’s moment was derailed by a late season concussion suffered when a shot from former teammate and friend James Neal, of the Nashville Predators, hit Fleury’s mask. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup with goaltender Matt Murray, as Fleury was relegated to bystander from the bench.
At 31, this is likely Fleury’s last run with the Penguins (put a pin in that thought, we’ll come back to it another day). His space taken by the younger Murray, when healthy. Fleury, the 2003 #1 overall pick was the first cornerstone of the rebuild laid by then General Manager Craig Patrick.
Before Crosby, before Malkin, there was Fleury.
Since February 25, Fleury’s long goodbye to the Penguins includes his most recent goalie mask, which features the names and faces of teammates past. Fleury is by any and all accounts a beloved teammate. Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen‘s name appears on Fleury’s mask, from his time in Pittsburgh.
Or, at least it did.
— Mike Necciai (@Michael29Angelo) May 4, 2017
Fleury literally taped over Niskanen’s name. Figuratively, Fleury has thus far taped over the Washington Capitals hopes of finally getting past the Pittsburgh Penguins. With a smile on his face.
Penguins 1st Goal
The Penguins first goal had more storylines than an episode of Game of Thrones (seriously, will they finally release the next season already?!).
Just four minutes into the game, the Penguins backed off their forecheck, and retreated to a quick neutral zone trap, which isolated Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik. Orpik fired a long pass to no one, which careened behind the Penguins net. Trevor Daley raced back for it on the right side, while Capitals agitator and all-round rat, Tom Wilson raced for Daley from the left side.
At the last moment, Daley was able to play the puck then duck under the charging Wilson.
The forechecker who retreated was Patric Hornqvist. From the Penguins zone, defenseman Olli Maatta snapped a perfect stretch pass ahead to Hornqvist, who skated directly past beleaguered Capitals defensmen Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner for a breakaway.
Hornqvist deked Caps goalie Braden Holtby. It was 1-0. The nervous crowd erupted, first in cheers, then in taunting chants, Holt-by, Holt-by.
The goal set the tone and gave the Penguins affirmation. Fleury provided the rest.
–Capitals coach Barry Trotz declined to say the Penguins have a mental edge on the Capitals. The Penguins franchise has won 8 of 9 playoff series against the Capitals and are winning this series despite the Capitals nearly overwhelming attack. Trotz instead called out his best players. Repeatedly.
Trotz could be fired if the Capitals season end in five games.
–Penguins fourth liners Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney were noticeable in their limited ice time. In two third period shifts, Kuhnhackl brought the crowd to life by hitting everything which moved. On one shift, Kuhnhackl made a defensive play, aided the Penguins transition to offense, registered two big hits, and created a turnover in the offensive zone.
It was a great shift. That was the Tom Kuhnhackl from the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Scott Wilson, the other member of the fourth line was benched for the third period.
—Jake Guentzel was also mostly benched for the third period, as the Penguins protected their lead. Guentzel has been a great compliment to Crosby, but in the nearly two games without 87, Guentzel has not been effective at either end of the ice.
But, Guentzel was credited with a goal when Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov kicked Guentzel’s centering pass into the Capitals net. A goal, without a shot on goal.
—Carl Hagelin played just 12 minutes, Wednesday. Hagelin is clearly struggling. He is able to show flashes of his speed and forecheck, but is otherwise out-of-sorts.
—Olli Maatta had a strong game and continued his rapid progression. Perhaps his best game. Maatta is picking up where his stellar rookie season left off, before injuries, surgeries, and cancer derailed him. You can see his confidence growing, as he has begun to step into the offensive play, too.
Silver linings. Maatta’s hand injury allowed he and the Penguins to work on his skating, while he was unable to play. Maatta is now more agile and quick than he’s ever been.
—Chris Kunitz had another strong game. Bring on the hate. Kunitz deserves much praise for his increased physical play and energy.
—Tom Wilson took a lengthy run at Kunitz in the second period. As Kunitz skated behind the Penguins net, Wilson charged from the blue line. It would have been a violent knee-on-knee collision. Obviously intentional. However, Kunitz was able to tuck-in his leg to avoid the collision.
—Trevor Daley was able to exact some retribution with a series of crosschecks as Wilson fell on the puck, along the wall in the third period. There was no penalty. Like prison guards, the referees knew to look the other way while some justice was administered.
But I don’t blame you for wishing it wasn’t necessary.
–Fleury, man. Fleury.
May the 4th be with you.