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Pens Miss Chance for Metro Crown, Drop Testy 3-1 Decision to Caps

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Patric Hörnqvist and Matt Niskanen shove in the second period Sunday. - Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH — The Capitals gave the Penguins’ prolific power play plenty of cracks at it, but Washington locked up its third consecutive Metropolitan Division title with a 3-1 win Sunday night at PPG Paints Arena.

With the regulation loss, just the Penguins’ second in their last 18 home games, the defending Stanley Cup champions find themselves in a real scramble for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh (45-29-6) leads Philadelphia and Columbus by two points apiece for the second position in the Metro, with New Jersey just three points back. All those pursuers have three games left, while the Penguins have two.

Philipp Grubauer continued his unlikely surge to the top spot on the Capitals’ goaltending depth chart, making several outstanding saves while short-handed. He finished with 33 stops overall. Grubauer, 26, has been Washington’s goalie of record in 11 of the past 17 games, usurping former Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby with the Stanley Cup playoffs on the doorstep, or so it appears.

With Grubauer as the de facto No. 1, the Capitals have gone 12-5, with 10 of those wins in regulation. They won’t win the President’s Trophy for the third season in a row, but Washington (47-25-7) might be playing its best with the regular season coming to a close next weekend.

In fairness, the play of Grubauer has been a significant lift. He robbed a hot-shooting Sidney Crosby twice Sunday, once on the doorstep during a second-period two-man advantage, and another time when Jake Guentzel poked a loose puck to Crosby at the top of the crease late in the third, only to have Grubauer make a diving glove save.

It’s unlikely these two teams will meet in the first round, but it wasn’t difficult to squint your eyes and picture yet another all-out postseason collision between these two teams. The fans were certainly engaged from the start, with the Penguins generating a few rush chances in the opening minutes.

However, the Capitals struck just 6:25 into the game when Andre Burakovsky hooked up with T.J. Oshie on a headman pass up the right flank. With Evgeni Malkin and Matt Hunwick in his wake, Oshie beat Matt Murray between the legs for his 18th of the year.

That was the start of an odd night for Murray, who didn’t see a ton of even-strength scoring chances on the night. Dmitry Orlov made one of those looks count when he used Olli Määttä as a screen on a solo counterattack with 6:14 left in the second. Orlov’s snap shot beat Murray over the blocker for a two-goal lead.

The Orlov goal was doubly damaging because it followed three consecutive penalties taken by the Capitals, putting the Penguins in position to tie the game — or even surge ahead — with their league-leading power play on the ice. But Grubauer was strong on several goalmouth scrambles, Malkin drilled the crossbar on a one-time blast and Patric Hörnqvist missed the net from close range, all before the second intermission.

Tom Wilson tipped a Matt Niskanen shot high into the net in the opening minute of the third, with Hörnqvist returning serve at 16:15 off a Malkin rebound. Crosby missed on an open look from the right post with an extra attacker on the ice, which represented the last gasp for the Penguins.

At least, it was the last gasp regarding the actual hockey. Malkin and Oshie got tied up at center ice in the final minute, leading to Malkin being forcibly restrained on his way back to the locker room and assistant coach Mark Recchi getting a game misconduct penalty.

The Penguins have the next three days off before their 17th and final back-to-back situation of the season, which starts Thursday in Columbus.

Analysis and Report Card:

by Dan Kingerski

Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel: D

Malkin and Malkin’s line was beaten Sunday night. Malkin was on the ice for eight scoring chances against but generated only four chances. Until Patric Hornqvist’s insertion onto the right wing padded the stats, the line was gobbled up by the Capitals.

In the first period, Malkin failed to maintain coverage on Oshie in the neutral zone, and Oshie scored on a short breakaway.

Not only was the line on the short end, but Malkin and Phil Kessel also combined for five turnovers.

Patric Hornqvist: A

Hornqvist did his job. He was his agitating, rebound-chasing best. While the Penguins were unnerved by the Capitals, Hornqvist single-handedly unnerved the Capitals.

Hornqvist and Sheary couldn’t crack the scoreboard, but that line with Riley Sheahan may have been the Penguins best.

The crazy Viking’s late penalty — a whack on Brooks Orpik in front — dropped his grade from A+.

Capitals PK: A+

The Capitals’ blue line stance was as impressive as it was effective. The Capitals killed precious chunks of time as the Penguins were forced to circle in the neutral zone looking for an opening. And, the Penguins were unable to generate rush pressure.

The lack of rush chances was the biggest story on the special teams battle.

Five chances and five kills. The Capitals also had a couple scoring chances. Evgeni Malkin hit the post during the Penguins second period five-on-three chance but that was a close as the Penguins power play came to scoring.

Penguins Coaching: C-

Perhaps the Penguins were saving a few wrinkles for the playoffs, but given the unlikeliness the Penguins will meet the Capitals in the first round, that possibility is remote.

The Penguins didn’t activate their defense as they did against New Jersey. The Penguins didn’t adjust to the Capitals neutral zone attack which took away space. There weren’t stretch passes or enough dump-in plays to get on the forecheck.

The Penguins didn’t exploit enough of the Capitals weaknesses, and Mark Recchi‘s heave-ho at the end of the game should be embarrassing.

Sidney Crosby: B

Crosby fired seven shots and had several scoring chances. He was a competitor in the tight-checking game. However, one may ask about the presence of Crosby’s linemates or if there were any. Jake Guentzel had no shots on goal. Bryan Rust had one.

Crosby out-chanced his Capital’s opponents. The Crosby “line” had four scoring chances and yielded only three.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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