WASHINGTON -- The Pittsburgh Penguins lost their first three games against the Washington Capitals this season by a combined 10-1. Another regulation loss would have left the Penguins without a point in a season series with the Capitals for the first time ever.
Pittsburgh finally found its offense against Washington, avoiding the sweep with a 4-3 victory at Verizon Center on Wednesday.
"I thought early in the series against them we had a lot of new people in the lineup," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "The last game (a 3-1 loss Feb. 17) was probably our best game against them, and then tonight we notched it up. To our credit, Washington ran around quite a bit, tried to get hits, tried to play outside their game. We just stuck to the way we needed to play. It was a good hockey game. A lot of emotion in the game."
Patric Hornqvist, Brandon Sutter, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz scored for the Penguins (35-17-9). Evgeni Malkin had three assists, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made 21 saves.
"We just needed to play better," Crosby said. "I don't think we really put together a solid game against them up to this point. Kind of a weird game tonight with the power plays kind of switching back and forth first couple of periods. Good to get a win, score some goals and hopefully build off it."
Pittsburgh and Washington each finished 1-for-6 on the power play.
John Carlson, Troy Brouwer and Alex Ovechkin scored for Washington (33-19-10), which is three points behind Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division. Goaltender Braden Holtby made 22 saves.
"We had good focus the first three times and we got victories," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "Tonight we weren't as focused and we deserve the loss."
The Penguins controlled play early, capitalizing on the Capitals' sloppy play. A Washington turnover led to a Kunitz breakaway, but Holtby snagged the Pittsburgh forward's backhand shot with his glove 42 seconds into the game.
Before the Capitals' first shot on goal, the Penguins took a 1-0 lead at 7:04 on Hornqvist's 19th goal. As Malkin entered the zone, he left a drop pass for Hornqvist, who beat Holtby with a wrist shot from the right circle.
"You look [at] the way the game went, the first 10 minutes of the first period, they dominated us 5-on-5," Holtby said. "Second period, we were shorthanded for almost the whole period. It's tough for us to win games like that because how we control the game is 5-on-5, our forecheck, our grit and our speed and skill combination."
The Capitals had three power-play opportunities in the first period, but failed to score despite several near-misses. As the third power play was about to expire, Sutter scored a shorthanded goal at 18:33, racing after Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen's errant pass and beating Holtby with a backhand.
"When you're entering the stretch run, getting that extra one or two power plays a game is very important," Johnston said. "But I thought early in the game one thing we did well was they got three power plays in a row, and it didn't rattle our group. We just killed the penalties. We hung in there. We stuck with it, and you know eventually over time you're going to get a power-play chance."
With 8.6 seconds remaining in the period, Carlson cut Washington's deficit to 2-1, firing a slap shot past Fleury.
The Capitals took three penalties in the first 3:25 of the second period. Crosby scored on the power play at 3:16 with Washington forward Brooks Laich off for tripping. The Pittsburgh captain's 20th goal made it 3-1.
In all, the Capitals gave the Penguins six power-play chances during the period, the most they've allowed in one period since Oct. 6, 2009, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
"Whenever you can kill off penalties, especially consecutive penalties, it gives your team a boost, it gives your team good jump, good momentum-builder, but we also wasted three-quarters of the second period killing penalties, and it's tough to try and win games if you're in the box for the entire second period," Brouwer said. "Not just the fact that you're shorthanded, but you've got guys, if they don't kill penalties, they're sitting on the bench for a long time."
After Fleury stopped Brouwer's tip-in chance on a pass from Jason Chimera, Brouwer batted his own rebound at 4:09 of the third period to make it 3-2.
Kunitz responded at 7:12, boxing out Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose neutral-zone turnover started the play, and scoring on Blake Comeau's rebound to restore the Penguins' two-goal lead.
Ovechkin beat Fleury on the power play at 16:26 for his NHL-leading 39th goal.
Washington's attempt to tie the game with Holtby pulled in favor of an extra attacker was unsuccessful.
"Of course because we know how good Washington [is], one of the most dangerous teams in the League," Malkin said. "We lost the last three games, and this was chance to beat them tonight. We have more confidence right now."
Washington visits the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday. Pittsburgh hosts the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday.