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Wounded Pens pull out gutsy win

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

It was a monumental task. 

The Pens were without captain and leader Sidney Crosby due to a concussion for their Game 4 Second Round matchup against Washington on Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena.

The team also played without Conor Sheary, who is also out with a concussion. And Pittsburgh was already playing without defenseman Kris Letang, its most dynamic player on the blue line and best breakout artist, and Matt Murray, the goaltender that led them to a Stanley Cup championship one year ago.

But the Pens overcame injuries all season long, suffering 286 man-games lost. Many of those injuries were to key players like Crosby (6), Letang (41), Evgeni Malkin (20), Sheary (20) and Murray (8).

Still, the Pens finished with the second-best record in the NHL. And their head coach believed they would once again rise to the occasion in Game 4.

"We love the resilience that this team shows in the face of adversity and challenges," Mike Sullivan said. "They always respond the right way. There's no doubt in my mind we'll do that again."

Sullivan's confidence appears now to be prophetic, as the Pens elevated their game to pull off a 3-2 victory against the Capitals to take a 3-1 series lead.

Pittsburgh will now, preposterously, have a chance to eliminate the President's Trophy-winning Capitals in Game 5 in Washington on Saturday night at Verizon Center.

"That was all will. There was not much skill out there," winger Patric Hornqvist said. "We worked really hard. It wasn't a perfect game from our side. Our compete was really high and our effort was there."

It was a gritty effort by a bruised and battered Pens team, one that refused to back down. They had to gut out most of the game, especially on the penalty kill where they kept the vaunted Capitals' power play off the scoresheet on all four attempts. The Pens made the sacrifices necessary, evidenced by their 24 blocked shots.

"It was a gutsy, gritty scrappy game for our group," Sullivan said. "It wasn't perfect by any stretch, but I love our compete level, our stick-to-it-iveness when we're on our heels, our willingness to pay the price and defend the right way."

The Pens didn't generate a lot of scoring chances and were outshot heavily, 38-18. They spent a lot of time trapped in their own zone battling and competing for pucks. At times the Pens were hanging on by the frazzled strings at the end of the rope.

But they held on.

"Everyone together showed a lot of character," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "Throughout the game we played well defensively and getting some big goals offensively. It was a great team win."

It was certainly a total team effort by Pittsburgh. No one better personified the team's intensity and tenaciousness than Hornqvist. Despite being hobbled twice due to blocked shots, he showed no fear and continued to lay his body on the line. Hornqvist got the scoring going for the Pens when he split defenders Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk for a breakaway, going glove-side, top shelf.

Chris Kunitz showed no fear when Washington's Tom Wilson tried to run him in the corner. Kunitz responded by settling the score with Wilson. Kunitz refused to back down.

Justin Schultz has his confidence back. And he picked a good time for it. Schultz scored the tying goal with 1:05 left in the third period of Game 3 with a bullet slap shot. He repeated that with a power-play goal at 11:24 in the second period of Game 4 to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead.

And of course, behind it all was their goaltender. Fleury did his part between the pipes for the Pens, stopping 36 of 38 shots. A goalie can be the great equalizer in any series. Fleury was there with the reliable smile and fantastic acrobatics.

"(Fleury) has elevated his game at an important time," Sullivan said. "He's a competitive guy. He's a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. And I think he's showing it."

Even the crowd did its part. The 18,617 were as loud as they've ever been and the Pens fed off of that energy.

But it behooves me to mention the contributions of everyone. Whether it was Bryan Rust legging out a dumped puck to negate an icing call, Ian Cole playing physical at his crease and landing heavy hits, Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl possessing the puck in the offensive zone while killing a penalty, and on, and on, and on.

All those little plays add up. And tonight they added up to a 3-1 advantage.

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