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3 Impressions: Pens 3, Caps 1

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Michelle Crechiolo gives her three impressions from the press box of the Penguins’ 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals.

The Pens’ power play had an amazing opportunity early in the game when they had four straight minutes of power-play time, including 1:45 of a 5-on-3 to work with, and didn’t take advantage of it. And while their lack of scoring on the man-advantage is certainly an issue, I don’t want to talk about that right now. I want to talk about the Pens’ penalty kill, which was absolutely brilliant tonight. They gutted out three huge kills against Washington’s top-ranked power play in an incredibly tight game, including a critical one about midway through the third with the Pens holding onto a 2-1 lead. Marc-Andre Fleury, as always, was obviously the Pens’ best penalty killer. But the guys in front of him did whatever it took to get clears, making great reads and plays and just skating with a ferocious sense of desperation and urgency. At one point, Rob Scuderi stepped directly in the path of an Alex Ovechkin blast, which is the definition of taking one for the team. He, Matt Cullen, Pascal Dupuis, Nick Bonino, Ben Lovejoy and Kris Letang in particular stood out during those shorthanded situations.

The Caps posed the biggest challenge yet for the Pens’ D, as they came into this game red-hot. They recently returned from a three-game road swing through Western Canada where they outscored their opponents 16-3, and had the NHL’s top-ranked offense with an average of over four goals per game. So holding them to just one tally (which, as Fleury pointed out with a grin after the game, they didn't technically score as it double-deflected off Maatta's stick and then Scuderi's skate?) That’s amazing. The penalty kill was obviously a big part of that, but I’ve got to give credit to the Pens for stepping up and producing an overall impressive defensive effort. It all started with Fleury, who – surprise, surprise – was absolutely brilliant yet again. He’s been keeping his team in every game and tonight was no different. The Caps certainly had their chances, and Fleury was there to stop every quality opportunity they had. I can think of at least six highlight-reel saves from the Flower – including one that was so magnificent that the Pens fans in the building started a loud FLEURY! FLEURY! chant.

The guys in front of him did a tremendous job as well. The Caps have a tough balance of skill and physicality, which wasn’t an easy blend for the Pens defensemen to deal with. But even though the D corps took a punishing physically while having to contain the Caps’ talent, they dealt with  it all admirably.

With the way the Pens have struggled to score this season and this being such a tight game for the first 40-plus minutes, having Washington get on the board first early in the third could have been a backbreaker. Instead, the Pens tied it up with a goal from Beau Bennett – who returned to the lineup tonight after missing the last 5 games with an injury – just 24 seconds later, and followed that with the game-winner from Phil Kessel about two minutes after that. You honestly can’t ask for a better response than that, and it was fantastic to see from this group. Overall, this was a huge divisional win against a team that dominated the Pens last season and has been dominating the league to start this one, as they had five straight wins coming into tonight. And while there’s obviously still issues that need to be fixed, the Pens should feel really, REALLY good about this win.

"We knew coming in here we wanted to improve our divisional record," head coach Mike Johnston said. "It was our first game against a divisional team. They’re hot, they’re coming off a pretty good streak. We’re playing in their building in front of a good crowd tonight. I thought our guys responded well. I really like our three shifts after they scored. They scored in the beginning of the third and then our next three shifts, I know we scored but it just felt like we were starting to take the momentum back away from them even though they gained it."

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