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Penguins show mettle in Game 7 win against Capitals

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury gets shutout, helps Pittsburgh advance to Eastern Conference Final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

WASHINGTON -- The puck flew off the stick of the greatest goal scorer of this generation. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin put so much into the one-timer from the slot that he dropped to one knee.

But Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury slid on his knees to his right and got the shaft of his stick on the puck. In a blur, it flew out of play as the Verizon Center crowd howled in anguish.

Fleury gave his stick some love and grinned behind his mask like a thief.

"I talked to my stick maybe," Fleury said. "I said a little thank you. 'Good job.' "

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

An inch to the left, an inch to the right, and maybe Ovechkin would have tied the game, and maybe the story would have been different. But no, the story was the same as it ever was. The Penguins defeated the Capitals 2-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round because of course they did.

Pittsburgh has played Washington in the Stanley Cup Playoffs 10 times and won nine series, three in the era of Ovechkin and Penguins forward Sidney Crosby. In back-to-back seasons, Washington has won the Presidents' Trophy only to be eliminated by Pittsburgh in the second round.

Last year the Penguins went on to win the Cup. This year? Well, why can't the Penguins do it again? Why can't they defeat the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final? Why can't they become the first repeat champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998?

"We have an opportunity to do something special here, and that's a big step," forward Matt Cullen said. "That's a great team over there. We knew going into the playoffs, you kind of have this one circled a little bit. We knew this would be a big challenge for us. To get by it was huge."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm7: Crosby on Penguins' Game 7 win

Frankly, it didn't seem like they would.

The Penguins were 20 minutes from eliminating the Capitals in five games. With a 3-1 series lead, they took a 2-1 lead into the third period of Game 5 here. They allowed three goals in the third period and lost 4-2. Then they fell behind 5-0 in Game 6 at home, and thousands of fans streamed for the exits before they tacked on a couple late goals in a 5-2 loss.

It looked like their problems were catching up to them. They had been relying on Fleury, blocked shots and opportunistic scoring. With top defenseman Kris Letang injured, they were struggling to break out of their zone, use their speed through the neutral zone and sustain pressure in the offensive zone. They had been outshot in every game in the series and by a total of 200-133.

Making matters worse, defenseman Trevor Daley, who couldn't play in Game 6 because of an injury, couldn't play in Game 7 either. Forward Carl Hagelin was a surprise scratch too.

"Obviously a lot of people counted us out after last game, and I can understand it," Cullen said. "I mean, we didn't have a good game. They kind of ran all over us. And it's a credit to the character in the room to respond the way we did and come out and play a really good game."

Fleury withstood an early flurry that looked like a Washington power play and made a veteran move to help his teammates catch their breath, going to the bench for a skate sharpening. He had help from his stick shaft and his goal posts twice, and he was brilliant.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm7: Fleury steers aside Ovechkin's drive

This is a guy who led the Penguins to the Cup in 2009, sat behind rookie Matt Murray when they won the Cup last year and reclaimed the net when Murray sustained an injury in warmups before Game 1 of the first round against Columbus Blue Jackets.

This is a guy who loves his city, loves his team, loves his teammates and is loved by them, and might have to go because of the NHL Expansion Draft to stock the Vegas Golden Knights.

This could have been his last game for the Penguins. He made sure it wasn't with a 29-save shutout.

"We're not in this position moving on if he doesn't play the way he did," Crosby said. "There were times where they had sustained pressure throughout games and he made some big saves, allowed us to stay in the game and allowed us to stay patient. He was huge for us all series long."

Twice the Penguins made the Capitals pay for failing to clear their zone. Forward Bryan Rust, who scored twice in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning last year, finished a pretty passing play by roofing a shot 8:49 into the second period. Forward Patric Hornqvist roofed a backhand 4:14 into the third.

The Penguins didn't sit on the lead. They kept coming, and coming, and coming, and outshot the Capitals in the third 11-6. It was their best period of the playoffs at the best time of the playoffs. Coach Mike Sullivan said it was the closest they have come to playing Penguins hockey.

"This is hands-down the best game that we've played in the playoffs to this point," Sullivan said. "Once again I think it's hard evidence that when we play the game a certain way that this group of players can compete against anyone."

Key words: once again.

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