Thursday’s matchup with Washington shaped up to be Pittsburgh’s biggest game of the year. It was essentially a must-win for their playoff hopes, three points back of their Metro Division rival entering the game, and the Penguins stepped up and delivered a terrific performance when they needed it most, beating the Capitals 4-1 at Capital One Arena.

“I thought everybody knew the stakes in here. I thought we played really hard,” Bryan Rust said. “We had a really smart game where we were good defensively. Didn’t really give them much.”

The Penguins return home having gone 3-0-1 on this four-game road trip through Columbus, New York, New Jersey, and now Washington. As Head Coach Mike Sullivan put it, success breeds success, and the players are feeling good about themselves and their game.

“I couldn't be happier for the players. I think they're having a lot of fun right now,” Sullivan said. “They're competing. They're battling hard. It's not perfect, but I love our energy, our enthusiasm. Our compete level is fun to watch.”

"I think over this last week, we've gained some ground. Now that we're close, I think it gives us even that much more hope and kind of gets everybody in here fired up," Rust said.

Coach Sullivan speaks with the media

Ryan Shea scored his first NHL goal before P.O Joseph helped Pittsburgh get out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, Michael Bunting scored in the second, and Lars Eller recorded the 400th point of his career with an empty-netter against his former team to seal the victory. Alex Nedeljkovic made 30 saves in his seventh straight start, where he is 5-0-2 over that stretch.

“He’s been really solid, and there’s been nights when he’s probably been tested more than we’d like to test him, but he’s been great for us,” Sidney Crosby said.

The Penguins were coming off a day of rest after a galvanizing back-to-back against the Rangers and Devils. Crosby said desperation fueled their third-period comeback on Tuesday in New Jersey, and that mindset carried over into this one. The Penguins got on the board less than two minutes into play with Shea’s tally.

"I honestly didn't know right off the bat because it hit a shin pad," he laughed after the game. "I didn't know if it was Lars’, and there was no way I was celebrating it not being my goal. So, I’d rather take the low-key route on that one. Once Lars pointed at me, I was like, alright, that's definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders. So, it was nice for sure."

The defenseman has been solid since slotting back in on Monday in New York for the first time since Dec. 8. After making his NHL debut on Oct. 21 at St. Louis and playing a total of 21 consecutive games, the 27-year-old had been back and forth between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before getting the call against the Rangers with John Ludvig being a late scratch due to illness.

It’s one of those lineup situations that ends up working out for the best, as Shea reconnected with Jack St. Ivany, his defense partner down in WBS, and that familiarity has helped both players and the team as a whole.

"I think the first half of my games were pretty good, playing fearless. Then I wasn't being consistent enough," Shea said. "There's two ways to look at it, I can go down and be mopey, and kind of just turn the page on it. Or I can go down and actually give myself a little kick in the butt and hopefully get another chance, and they're giving me one right now. So, I told myself I wasn’t going to let this one slip."

The Penguins got another goal from the blue line when Joseph’s shot deflected off a Capitals skate and in, giving them a 2-0 lead just 11:03 into play. Even though Washington had quite the edge in shots at that point, it didn’t feel like the Penguins were overwhelmed.

The execution started to accompany the mindset in the second, which was an excellent period of hockey for the Penguins. They took a 3-0 lead after Bunting blasted a shot home from the circle (and followed it up with a phenomenal celebration), and overall, just looked locked in with their pace of play and how they worked.

In the third period, the Penguins were shorthanded early after Erik Karlsson got called for holding. Seven seconds later, Kris Letang joined him in the box… and the Penguins came up with the penalty kill of the season.

Eller and Drew O’Connor – who had one hell of a game – got it started with tremendous efforts, as they made plays and Nedeljkovic made saves. Rust then got a shorthanded breakaway. The Penguins fans in the crowd were so loud that they almost drowned out the cheers that accompanied Alex Ovechkin’s goal, which came on the last second of Letang’s penalty.

The Penguins felt like they didn’t lose any momentum despite the tally, and that they still actually gained it.

“I think that’s a crucial moment in the game. Guys who went out there, guys knew what had to be done,” Rust said. “Those guys who went over the boards first, I don’t think they got in the zone for about forty seconds, which is huge. And then to get a 5-on-3 frickin’ breakaway, I don’t know, that doesn’t really happen often. Then I almost had a second chance, too, which REALLY doesn’t happen often. That would’ve been nice to bury that one.”

The Penguins kept battling from there, with Eller sealing the victory at the 17:23 mark of the third. “We have belief and confidence in each other, and just take one game at a time and keep trying to stay alive. No quit in this group,” he said.

Next up is the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena.

“We just got to continue to keep playing this way, give ourselves a chance, and I think that’s our approach,” Crosby said. “We can’t really dwell on the game. We just move by it and get ready for the next one.”