Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens' 3-2 win against the Washington Capitals in Game 4 at PPG Paints Arena.
* Marc-Andre Fleury has been and continues to be the Pens' best player. He's performing at such a high level so consistently, it's been just incredible to watch. While I thought the Pens played a solid game overall, they did have stretches where they struggled to get out of their end. And of course, Washington is just a great team. They had the best regular-season record for a reason. They were going to get their chances, and when they did, Fleury was there to turn them aside with some incredible displays of athleticism. Head coach Mike Sullivan said it best after the game: "He has elevated his game at an important time. He's a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, and he's showing it."
* Overall, it was just such a gutsy effort by the Pens to get a win with all the players out due to injury, most notably their captain and leader Sidney Crosby. It wasn't their best game as they got outshot and outchanced by a wide margin, but you know what? In the playoffs, that doesn't matter. What matters is that at the end of the day, they went out there and did all the things they said they needed to do in a gut-check of a game. To a man, every player stepped up and did their part. They dug deep, battled hard and found a way to get it done. They embraced the challenge and the adversity - just like they've done all season - and responded the right way.
* Yesterday, Sullivan said one big reason for the belief in their locker room that they can win regardless of who's in their lineup is because "certain players will step up at different times to make big plays that help this team find ways to win." Tonight, one of those players was Patric Hornqvist. He had a hell of a night. He opened the scoring with an unbelievable breakaway goal. He did his part in the defensive zone, at one point making a huge block that left him hobbling (and earned him a thanks from Fleury). And he even won a faceoff on a power play after Evgeni Malkin got kicked out of the circle to start the sequence that led to the game-winner.
* This morning, Sullivan also said they had to be committed to compete and defend and pay the price. And tonight, that's exactly what his team did. Guys were absolutely committed to doing whatever it took to protect the house and keep pucks from getting to their goaltender and winning battles to get clears. Players were sacrificing their bodies all over the ice, and I thought the forwards did an especially good job of that. Whenever they blocked shots from the point, it helped them get out of their end quicker and get up the ice.
* Jake Guentzel is scoring goals at an unbelievable pace right now. He got his NHL-leading eighth of the playoffs tonight, and while it wasn't pretty (his centering pass went off Dmitry Orlov's skate and in), a goal is a goal. It doesn't matter how it goes in. He's the third rookie in NHL history to have eight goals in his first nine playoff games, joining Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Mario Lemieux. No big deal. His 12 points are second in franchise history among Pens rookies behind Jaromir Jagr's 13 in 1991.
* Olli Maatta set up Pittsburgh's first two goals, though he only got credited for his beautiful pass on Hornqvist's (Guentzel's was unassisted since it went off a Caps player). Both times, I thought he displayed impressive poise and vision to get the puck into the hands of his forwards. Overall, Maatta had a really solid game.
* I talked to Justin Schultz this morning about how the power play would adjust without Crosby. He said while it was a tough loss, they still had guys who were more than capable of stepping up, and he took the lead in that regard. During a second-period power play, Malkin got the puck over to Schultz at the center point. And though he had Kessel open, Schultz decided to take the shot himself and it proved to be a wise choice. I love seeing that decisiveness from him. He's said many times that confidence is a huge thing for him, and after goals in two straight games (the first playoff tallies of his career), he's definitely getting it back.
* The Pens did get into some penalty trouble, getting called for a few stick infractions, including a double minor to Matt Cullen after he caught Justin Williams up high and drew blood. But the Pens did a terrific job of killing those off. They really didn't give up a lot of quality chances and got a lot of big clears. They responded after giving up a couple power-play goals in their Game 3 loss. The biggest thing was that they didn't go chasing for retribution after what happened to Crosby. As Marc-Andre Fleury said, the best way to make the Caps pay was to win.