Although they were outshot and outpossessed, the Pittsburgh Penguins displayed enough finish and defensive fortitude to finish their long road trip on a winning note.
The Penguins’ revamped first line combined for seven points – including Sidney Crosby‘s goal and two assists – in their 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Monday night at Verizon Center.
Chris Kunitz scored two goals to take the team lead at 31, with recent trade acquisition Lee Stempniak helping set up both. Pittsburgh (43-17-4, 90 points) finished its five-game cross-country journey at 3-2, regaining a one-point lead over Boston for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Capitals (30-26-10, 70 points) remained one point out of the East’s final playoff spot, but they will get a second crack at the Metropolitan Division-leading Pens on Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
Eric Fehr and Nicklas Backstrom scored for the Capitals, who rallied from one-goal deficits twice but fell behind for good when Kunitz connected at 12:40 of the second period. Washington missed on a prime chance to force overtime when the Penguins were whistled for too many men on the ice with 2:17 to play in the third.
Penguins rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff got some help from his shot blockers, especially late, but he denied 31 shots to rebound from a tough loss at San Jose last week. Capitals netminder Jaroslav Halak, picked up from Buffalo at the trade deadline, stopped just 17 of 20.
Kunitz burned Halak for his 30th goal of the season less than a minute into the game. Crosby fired a cross-rink dish on left wing to Kunitz, who dashed around a stationary Mike Green and stashed a backhand behind Halak at 46 seconds of the first.
The Caps knotted the score at 3:03 when Fehr lifted a diagonal Jason Chimera pass over Zatkoff from the doorstep, but Crosby had an answer 49 seconds later during a power play. The Pittsburgh captain buried his 30th on a blistering one-timer from the right circle, assisted by Evgeni Malkin.
The Capitals put the pressure on in the second, outshooting Pittsburgh 17-6 and getting another equalizer on a power play of their own. Backstrom’s intended pass for Brooks Laich deflected off Pens defenseman Rob Scuderi‘s stick and under Zatkoff with nine minutes gone in the period.
Once again, the Penguins pushed back. Stempniak took a drop pass from Crosby and ripped a shot on net that Halak kicked directly to Kunitz.
The possession stats weren’t pretty for the Pens over the final 40 minutes, but they managed to defend well enough to hold their slim lead in the third. Washington launched about 60 percent of the total shot attempts in the game.
These rivals will collide again Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center. Faceoff is set for 7 p.m. as the Penguins go for the four-game season sweep.