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Penguins, Capitals play game for ages

Turn back clock with 15-goal thriller that's must-see-TV

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Here's the thing about the impromptu '80s night Monday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh: This isn't the 1980s.

The reason the Pittsburgh Penguins' 8-7 overtime win against the Washington Capitals was such a stop-what-you're-doing-and-turn-on-the-game event was that this isn't an era of wide-open hockey.

This is the era of the salary cap, of parity in the standings, of video study, of defensive systems, of fourth-line forwards and third-pair defensemen who can skate, of goaltenders who are bigger, better and more well-equipped than ever before.

And they still scored like crazy.

The score was 3-0, Washington. And then it was 3-3. And then it was 5-3, Pittsburgh. And then it was 5-5. And then it was 7-5, Pittsburgh. And then it was 7-7.

And then, after all of that in regulation, they went to 3-on-3 overtime.

You knew it wouldn't last long. Penguins forward Conor Sheary ended it 34 seconds in when he drove to the net and jammed at his own rebound with Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer falling backward. As Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen hit Sheary and knocked off his helmet, the puck bounced off Niskanen's right skate and slid in slow motion across the goal line.

Video: WSH@PIT: Sheary jams puck off skate and in for OT win

All that was missing was Sheary standing up and yelling to the crowd, like Maximus in the movie "Gladiator," "Are you not entertained?"

Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo tweeted he was watching the game "in the fetal position." Retired NHL defenseman Hal Gill, who played for the Penguins in 2007-08 and '08-09, tweeted it was "bananas." He said it had "playoff intensity with zero defensive structure."

There were 15 goals, nine in the second period. There was back-and-forth action, animosity between Metropolitan Division rivals, a hat trick by Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, an NHL-leading 27th goal and three assists by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

Eleven players scored, and incredibly Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, one of the best goal-scorers of this era, if not the best, was not one of them. Twenty-five had at least a point.

Video: WSH@PIT: Williams dekes defender, beats Murray

Not since Oct. 27, 2011, when the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 9-8, had two teams combined for at least 15 goals. The Capitals became the third team in 21 years to score at least seven goals and lose. The Penguins' Matt Murray became the first goaltender to play a full game, allow seven goals and win since the Flyers' Dominic Roussel did it in an 8-7 game against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 21, 1994, according to writer Sean McIndoe.

Bananas, indeed.

Look, we can romanticize for the good old days. We can keep working on improving hockey, including adding more offense. But we can't go back to the '80s, and if we go back and watch old games, if we're honest with ourselves, we don't want to. When games are low-scoring, we complain there are too few goals. When they're high-scoring, we say they have "zero defensive structure" or poor goaltending. Hockey isn't perfect and never was. It will never please everybody, even its most ardent fans. But it evolved for a reason, and in many ways, it's better than ever before -- more athletic, more sophisticated, more competitive.

This game was special because it was rare and because of the circumstances. Consider the era. Now consider this: The Capitals were on a nine-game winning streak, the Penguins on a three-game losing streak. The Capitals were ranked first in the NHL in goals against, allowing 1.91 per game, and starting Braden Holtby, the reigning winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. When the Capitals took a 3-0 lead, no one would have been surprised had they cruised the rest of the way.

But these were two of the best teams in the League in terms of points percentage, the Capitals second at .733 and the Penguins fourth at .679, and in terms of goals per game, the Penguins second at 3.40 and the Capitals seventh at 3.02. Malkin made it 3-1, Sheary made it 3-2, Nick Bonino made it 3-3 and … well, '80s, '90s, aughts, teens, it didn't matter. Talent took over, and Twitter lit up, and it was must-see TV.

"That could have turned into a rout quickly, and it didn't, and I give our guys a ton of credit for that," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I just think we've got a resilient group, and they know they're capable of coming back in games when they get down multiple goals. We love that about this group. The compete level, the competitive spirit, the never-say-die, just the stick-to-itiveness is something that we really admire about our guys, and I thought it was evident tonight.

"That second period is one of the craziest periods I've been associated with. I don't even know how to assess it."

Here's an easy assessment: It was fun.

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