PITTSBURGH — It got wild. It got rough. Tom Wilson did a bad thing … again.
But when the clouds of anger and vitriol cleared Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena, the mood was sullen. The Capitals had snatched the lead from the Penguins in their second-round series with a 4-3 win in Game 3.
Alex Ovechkin scored arguably the biggest goal of his illustrious career, batting the rebound of his own shot into the net with 1:09 to go. Olli Määttä had given the puck away at the end of an extended shift in the Washington zone, leading to a two-on-one for Nick Bäckström and Ovechkin. Ovechkin’s initial shot rang the right post, but he was there to deposit the rebound for the go-ahead goal.
“That game could’ve gone either way,” Mike Sullivan said. “We have extended zone time with that shift. We’ve got to be smarter with the puck in that area of the rink. We felt we had a lot of momentum there.”
Matt Niskanen‘s slap shot popped off Matt Murray‘s left toe and into the net at 5:06. Previous to that, the Penguins had taken command on two points each from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, plus a game-breaking dish by the freshly-mended Evgeni Malkin.
Too many ill-timed decisions from defensemen eventually killed the Penguins in the third, though. Kris Letang was the lone man back after Määttä’s poor pass, but that was merely one of a series of odd-man rushes Washington generated in the final 10 minutes.
“Decisions, maybe,” Letang said, when asked what the Penguins need to fix. “We were on the ice for a little bit of time. We had control but our forwards were tired. At the end of the day, maybe stay to the outside or get a change. … With the talent they have on the ice, you can’t give up a lot of odd-man rushes because they’ll make you pay.”
Predictably after the controversy and frustration of Game 2, the first period was much more of a rough ride than what we’ve been accustomed to seeing in these playoffs to date. Wilson was involved, of course, with Jamie Oleksiak giving him a couple of whacks early and Letang checking Wilson into Murray for an interference penalty.
There were five penalties called in the first period, but it was the one that wasn’t called that sent the building into an apoplectic state. With Zach Aston-Reese carrying the puck in front of the Capitals’ bench midway through the second period, Wilson took a few strides and delivered a high hit that sent Aston-Reese to the ice and Wilson spinning into his own bench. Despite the force and placement of the hit, no penalties were issued.
Tom Wilson LEVELS Pittsburgh’s Aston-Reese with a high hit to the shoulder/head area..
— NHL Daily 365 (@NHLDaily365) May 2, 2018
Sullivan revealed after the game that Aston-Reese suffered a broken jaw and a concussion on the play, which he termed a “high hit.”
“At some point, we would hope that the league might do something,” Sullivan said. “But as far as we’re concerned, all we can control is what’s within our power. That’s where our focus will be.”
By that point, the Penguins had rebounded from allowing the first goal with a pair of strikes less than 2 1/2 minutes apart. The Capitals had forged ahead with a power-play goal from John Carlson, one that banged into the net off Bryan Rust‘s stick, but Guentzel tipped Justin Schultz‘s point wrister to tie the game at 4:33 of the second, followed by Hörnqvist’s successful hip of Malkin’s cross-crease pass on the power play at 6:49.
Hörnqvist’s called Malkin’s presence “huge” in 19:07 of ice time. The Penguins looked more like their relentless selves with four lines rolling, unlike in the previous three games when they essentially had three.
“You see how he separates himself from their defenders a lot,” Hörnqvist said. “He seems to always (buy) that little extra time and he made a nice play there on my goal.”
Following the Aston-Reese incident, which saw him leave the ice with blood dripping from his face, the Penguins lost a bit of their starch. Jamie Oleksiak lost control of the puck behind his net, allowing T.J. Oshie to set up Chandler Stephenson for the tying one-timer at 11:04 of the second.
However, the Crosby-Guentzel connection once again bore fruit during a four-on-four situation late in the second. Guentzel cruised into the left circle, dangled the puck through Dmitri Orlov‘s legs and dished to Crosby for a bullet snipe over Holtby’s outstretched glove with 3:33 left before intermission. Crosby now has eight goals in the playoffs, tying his total from last spring.
The fact remains, though, that Crosby has been on the ice for all seven goals the Penguins have scored in this series. Paired with Riley Sheahan for the night, Phil Kessel recorded his first point of this best-of-seven, but he still has just six points in the playoffs. Sullivan said the Penguins’ coaches are asking Kessel to play a little more inside the dots due to the physical nature of this series.
Overall, the Penguins’ coach seemed hopeful about the opportunity to mix and match with Malkin back in action. Derick Brassard and Conor Sheary again showed chemistry, but again they were unable to chip in an even-strength goal.
“We saw glimpses of some guys who got some zone time,” Sullivan said. “We’re doing a lot of good things out there, too. We just have to keep fighting. We’ll try to find some combinations to put together to give us a chance to get some production through our lineup.”
Now the Penguins have to rally from behind in a series against the Capitals, something they haven’t had to do in the past two years in these matchups with Washington. Shots on goal were even at 22 apiece and each team had 48 total attempts on net, so an overhaul isn’t needed, but they’ll be in desperate search of a result for Thursday’s Game 4 right here.
“I think we played really well all game,” Hörnqvist said. “They played well, too. It was a hell of a game out there. Just too made it came down to one mistake with a minute left. They execute on a chance and they win the game.”
Execute they did, and the Capitals’ two longest-tenured players pulled it off in a pressurized spot. The Ovechkin-capped conclusion left Murray shaking his head.
“I thought I was all over it,” Murray said. “I don’t know exactly what happened but I think he made a pretty good play to stay with it.”