The Pittsburgh Penguins showed Tuesday night how resilient they can be, and how they can elevate their game.
They just didn’t do it soon enough.
They spotted Washington a 4-0 lead in the first period, and the Capitals were able to hang on — barely — and escape PPG Paints Arena with a 4-3 victory.
Penguins right winger Bryan Rust returned from a 10-game stint on the Long-Term Injured list because of an unspecified upper-body injury. He worked on the second line alongside Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith, who was appearing in his 800th NHL game.
The Capitals, who had been 0-2-2 in their previous four games, grabbed a 1-0 lead 55 seconds into the opening period, when Tom Wilson carried the puck down the right side, then blew a wrist shot past Tristan Jarry from the top of the circle.
The goal was Wilson’s 11th of the season, but first in nine games.
It also ended a streak during which the Penguins had scored first in six consecutive home games.
Penguins right winger Valtteri Puustinen adjourned to the locker room midway through the period after Capitals defenseman John Carlson smacked him in the mouth with his stick. There was no penalty, because the contact came when Carlson was following through on a clearing attempt.
Jarry was victimized by an unlucky bounce at 11:16, as a Beck Malenstyn centering attempt from the left side caromed off the stick of Penguins defenseman Ryan Graves and sailed into the net.
Jarry’s bad start got considerably worse when Washington defenseman Martin Fehervary beat him with a wrist shot from the high slot at 13:02, giving the Capitals three goals on seven shots.
It also gave Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan all the incentive he needed to make a goaltending switch, and Alex Nedeljkovic replaced Jarry.
In keeping with the theme of improbable goal-scorers — Malenstyn’s was his fourth, Fehervary’s his second — Chad Ruhwedel appeared to cut into the Capitals’ advantage when he beat Washington goalie Darcy Kuemper from above the left circle at 16:33.
Unfortunately for Ruhwedel, who entered the evening with a 26-game goal-less streak, the goal was waved off after the Capitals successfully challenged that Sidney Crosby had been offside during the sequence that preceded the goal.
Puustinen returned from the locker room in time to take a slashing minor at 17:45, and Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkin made him pay for it, beating Nedeljkovic through traffic on a wrist shot from the right point — not his usual slap shot from above the left circle — to make it 4-0.
The Penguins finally broke through four seconds before intermission, as Rickard Rakell drove a slap shot from the slot past Kuemper for his third of the season — all in the past five games. Erik Karlsson got the only assist.
The Penguins weren’t credited with a shot in the second period until nine minutes had passed, but seconds later, Crosby swatted a puck behind Kuemper at 9:11, while falling to the ice at the right side of the crease. Assists on the goal, Crosby’s 21st, went to Jake Guentzel and Malkin.
That goal was Crosby’s 1,539th career point, pulling him even with Joe Thornton for 12th place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list.
Crosby promptly moved into sole possession of the 12th spot by setting up a Guentzel goal with 64 seconds remaining in the period.
Crosby knocked Capitals defenseman Rasmus Sandin off the puck behind the Washington net, then fed a pass to Guentzel at the left side of the crease. Rakell got the other assist on the goal, Guentzel’s 17th.
The Penguins had a chance to tie the game when Fehervary was penalized for holding Rakell at 5:28 of the third, but they were unable to convert with the extra man. They failed to exploit another man-advantage when Washington defenseman Ethan Bear was sent off for holding Malkin at 10:40.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are scheduled to practice Wednesday at noon at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex before traveling to Boston, where they will face the Bruins Thursday evening.