Matt Murray was thrown to the wolves in his first start back from the AHL, facing the league leading Washington Capitals with their #1 ranked scoring offense and power play. The Penguins were on the tail end of a back-to-back against a rested team. There was a lot going against Pittsburgh entering the game, but despite controlling possession in the game, and despite a night where Murray played well in stopping 34 of 37 shots the Capitals were able to come back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2. The loss denied the Pens an opportunity to jump the New York Islanders for 3rd place in the division, and it makes Thursday night's matchup against the New York Rangers all the more crucial for keeping pace in the playoff race.
The Penguins controlled the play early on, pinning the Capitals back in their own zone, and they took advantage of the early possession. Brian Dumoulin chipped a loose puck up ice to Carl Hagelin, who chipped it to space while getting checked into the boards, and Evgeni Maklin grabbed it for a 2-on-1 with Phil Kessel. Malkin held the puck as Dmitry Orlov sprawled across the ice to take away the pass. Geno calmly skated in on Braden Holtby, deked to his backhand, took it back to his forehand, and put the puck into the net to give Pittsburgh the early 1-0 lead. Matt Murray wasn't forced to make a save until 8:52 had elapsed in the 1st period. The Pens did a good job of driving possession the other way, but a Chris Kunitz tripping penalty midway through the period put the Capitals' top ranked power play on the ice and ready to set up against the rookie netminder. But Murray stood tall on the power play to maintain the Pittsburgh lead. A Karl Azner cross checking penalty late in the 1st gave the Penguins a great chance to increase their lead before the intermission, but a Kessel penalty on a Washington rush 31 seconds in negated the chance, and the teams entered the locker room still 1-0 in the Pens' favor.
The Penguins came out flying to start the 2nd, and it was Patric Hornqvist again getting on the scoresheet with his fourth goal in the last 2 games. Olli Maatta made a nice pass to find Hornqvist all alone down low on the goal mouth, and Hornqvist managed to slide the puck between Holtby's legs to extend the lead to two. It wouldn't last long though, as the Capitals managed to cut the lead back to 1 just 39 seconds later. Mike Richards grabbed a block shot at the top of the right circle and threw it on net. The puck looked to hit off Carl Hagelin on its way in, and that deflected the puck just enough to go in off Murray's outstretched glove arm.
Shortly after the Washington goal Krs Letang was sent off for holding, but Jason Chimera took an embellishment penalty diving to the ice to make it 4-on-4 hockey. With seconds left on the coincidental minors, Pittsburgh again took a penalty when Ian Cole hooked Orlov, but Washington AGAIN got called for an embellishment penalty on Orlov's dive. It continued to be a fast paced, back and forth game after the penalties expired before Washington was able to break through to tie up the score, and it was the Capitals' leading scorer who knotted things back up. Justin Williams took the puck behind the net and threw a centering pass in front, and Evgeny Kuznetsov was left unguarded on the crease and slammed home the rebound for his 20th goal of the season.
Despite the open flow of the game, the game began to feel like like it could be decided on the next goal as the back and forth continued in the opening minutes of the 3rd period. The teams traded haymakers, but neither offense had luck beating the other defense and goaltender. But it was an Evgeni Malkin high sticking penalty that threatened to undo the Pens, and the Capitals' top ranked power play was able to score the crucial next goal. Matt Niskanen unleashed a one time inside the blue line that beat Murray through traffic to give the Capitals the 3-2 lead. It would prove to hold up, as despite Pittsburgh pressure in the last quarter of the period Holtby was able to stand tall and prevent the equalizing goal.
The Penguins tonight showed they could hang with the Washington Capitals in what was a playoff-type atmosphere, and the key to beating Washington will be controlling the possession game like the Pens did tonight. Pittsburgh had a score-adjusted 56.1 CF% and had the Capitals pinned in there own zone for long stretches of a time. Unfortunately for the Pens, it didn't translate into more goals. The schedule doesn't let up on Pittsburgh in the coming weeks, and they'll spend the majority of their remaining games facing off within their division. The next test is Thursday night against the Rangers, and it's a game they need to win if they want a reasonable chance of catching New York in the division.